Posey's Tips & Tricks

Is Generative AI a Viable Tool for Stealing Sensitive Information?

With tools like ChatGPT scraping the Web, we could see a return to the old "Google Hacking" technique of yesteryear.

Not long after Google began to gain mainstream popularity, cyber criminals adopted a new technique for stealing personal information called Google Hacking. This technique (which is rarely used today) was based on the idea that personal information is exposed on poorly coded Web sites and that while it is impractical for an attacker to manually scour every Web site in existence, Google has already indexed those sites and likely knows about sensitive information that has been accidentally exposed. Therefore, all a criminal had to do was to search for the information that they wanted. Let me give you a quick example.

In America, Social Security numbers are nine digits long and follow a very specific format: XXX-XX-XXXX. Therefore, if a criminal had wanted to use Google to search for a social security number then they could take advantage of the fact that Google uses a question mark to search for an unknown character and search for "???-??-????." Similar techniques existed for searching for credit card numbers and other sensitive information.

Thankfully, Google has long had filters in place to prevent the types of searches that I just described, but I have a feeling that this decades-old technique might be about to make a comeback -- but with a twist. It may be that cyber criminals turn to AI engines based on large language models to extract the types of personal information that would be useful in various schemes.

In some ways, generative AI engines based on large language models (such as ChatGPT) are similar to Google. They index the contents of the Internet, but use filters and other mechanisms in place to prevent the AI from disclosing certain types of information. It isn't that ChatGPT and other AI engines don't have access to sensitive information (they probably do), but they are simply designed not to expose certain types of information. Therefore all a cyber criminal needs to do is to find a way of manipulating the AI engine into giving them what they are looking for. Think of it as being like a social engineering attack, but directed against an AI instead of being directed toward a human.

As an example, I have recently been reading a lot of stories about the potential for cyber criminals to use ChatGPT as a tool for creating more convincing phishing attacks. I have heard rumors that OpenAI has taken steps to prevent ChatGPT from being used in this way. However, during a test I was able to copy a fake phishing message from the Microsoft 365 Attack Simulation Tool and ask ChatGPT to "make it sound more professional." ChatGPT did exactly as I asked and created a very polished phishing message, in spite of being programmed not to do that sort of thing. That's what I mean when I say that criminals may be able to manipulate generative AI engines into creating otherwise forbidden output. The criminal must simply ask for "forbidden" information, but do so in a way that doesn't violate the AI's rules.

Of course I am just using phishing messages as an example. There are quite a few other possibilities. As another example, when I first started experimenting with ChatGPT, I asked it where I could raft on Class VI whitewater in the United States. Today, ChatGPT answers this question with no problem. But earlier on, ChatGPT instead chose to lecture me about how I was going to get myself killed and how it refused to enable my reckless behavior by giving me such information.

I don't have a way of testing my theory since ChatGPT no longer withholds information on Class VI whitewater rafting, but I just can't help but wonder if I could have tricked it into giving me the information that I asked for by changing the way that I asked. For example, I might have asked ChatGPT to write a short story about four friends who successfully ride the most challenging whitewater rapids in the U.S. If that query failed to yield the desired information, I would likely have issued a follow up query such as, "Can you add the name of the river to the story?"

Obviously that's a pretty benign example, but the point remains. Creative queries may be the key to getting around generative AI safety filters. But what about the potential for gaining access to sensitive information that I had illuded to earlier?

There is one extremely key difference between generative AI (such as ChatGPT) and a traditional search engine like Google. When you ask a search engine a question, it will point you toward various Web pages where you might be able to find the answer to your question. Conversely, when you ask generative AI a question, it will use what it knows to answer the question directly rather than pointing you to a Web page.

Now here is the important part. Generative AI and search engines both use the same source material (aside from the fact that most of ChatGPT's data is from 2021 and earlier). However, a search engine treats each Web site as an individual entity ("here are 10 pages that might contain what you are looking for"). Generative AI, on the other hand, seeks to understand the contents of the pages that it indexes and there is no rule stating that the answers that it gives have to have been sourced from a single Web site. If you ask ChatGPT a complex question, it is likely to formulate an answer with bits of information from several different Websites.

So think about the way that generative AI is able to aggregate content from the standpoint of an identity thief. If an identity thief were to search Google for an individual's sensitive information then they would probably have to spend hours visiting various Web sites, cherry picking small amounts of data from each site and trying to build a complete identity profile of their intended victim. On the flip side however, generative AI could conceivably do all of this tedious data aggregation for them. All the criminal would have to do is to come up with a creative query that would trick the AI into displaying information that it might not otherwise be so inclined to provide.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 22-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.


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