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Virtual presentation / poster accept

MACTA: A Multi-agent Reinforcement Learning Approach for Cache Timing Attacks and Detection

Jiaxun Cui · Xiaomeng Yang · Mulong Luo · Geunbae Lee · Peter Stone · Hsien-Hsin Lee · Benjamin Lee · G. Edward Suh · Wenjie Xiong · Yuandong Tian

Keywords: [ Applications ] [ multi-agent reinforcement learning ] [ game theory ] [ security ]


Security vulnerabilities in computer systems raise serious concerns as computers process an unprecedented amount of private and sensitive data today. Cache timing attacks (CTA) pose an important practical threat as they can effectively breach many protection mechanisms in today’s systems. However, the current detection techniques for cache timing attacks heavily rely on heuristics and expert knowledge, which can lead to brittleness and the inability to adapt to new attacks. To mitigate the CTA threat, we propose MACTA, a multi-agent reinforcement learning (MARL) approach that leverages population-based training to train both attackers and detectors. Following best practices, we develop a realistic simulated MARL environment, MA-AUTOCAT, which enables training and evaluation of cache-timing attackers and detectors. Our empirical results suggest that MACTA is an effective solution without any manual input from security experts. MACTA detectors can generalize to a heuristic attack not exposed in training with a 97.8% detection rate and reduce the attack bandwidth of adaptive attackers by 20% on average. In the meantime, MACTA attackers are qualitatively more effective than other attacks studied, and the average evasion rate of MACTA attackers against an unseen state-of-the-art detector can reach up to 99%. Furthermore, we found that agents equipped with a Transformer encoder can learn effective policies in situations when agents with multi-layer perceptron encoders do not in this environment, suggesting the potential of Transformer structures in CTA problems.

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