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Workshop: Workshop on Machine Learning Safety

Decepticons: Corrupted Transformers Breach Privacy in Federated Learning for Language Models

Liam Fowl · Jonas Geiping · Steven Reich · Yuxin Wen · Wojciech Czaja · Micah Goldblum · Tom Goldstein


Privacy is a central tenet of Federated learning (FL), in which a central server trains models without centralizing user data. However, gradient updates used in FL can leak user information. While the most industrial uses of FL are for text applications (e.g. keystroke prediction), the majority of attacks on user privacy in FL have focused on simple image classifiers and threat models that assume honest execution of the FL protocol from the server. We propose a novel attack that reveals private user text by deploying malicious parameter vectors, and which succeeds even with mini-batches, multiple users, and long sequences. Unlike previous attacks on FL, the attack exploits characteristics of both the Transformer architecture and the token embedding, separately extracting tokens and positional embeddings to retrieve high-fidelity text.

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