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BadChain: Backdoor Chain-of-Thought Prompting for Large Language Models

Zhen Xiang · Fengqing Jiang · Zidi Xiong · Bhaskar Ramasubramanian · Radha Poovendran · Bo Li

Halle B #138
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Tue 7 May 1:45 a.m. PDT — 3:45 a.m. PDT


Large language models (LLMs) are shown to benefit from chain-of-thought (COT) prompting, particularly when tackling tasks that require systematic reasoning processes. On the other hand, COT prompting also poses new vulnerabilities in the form of backdoor attacks, wherein the model will output unintended malicious content under specific backdoor-triggered conditions during inference. Traditional methods for launching backdoor attacks involve either contaminating the training dataset with backdoored instances or directly manipulating the model parameters during deployment. However, these approaches are not practical for commercial LLMs that typically operate via API access. In this paper, we propose BadChain, the first backdoor attack against LLMs employing COT prompting, which does not require access to the training dataset or model parameters and imposes low computational overhead. BadChain leverages the inherent reasoning capabilities of LLMs by inserting a backdoor reasoning step into the sequence of reasoning steps of the model output, thereby altering the final response when a backdoor trigger is embedded in the query prompt. In particular, a subset of demonstrations will be manipulated to incorporate a backdoor reasoning step in COT prompting. Consequently, given any query prompt containing the backdoor trigger, the LLM will be misled to output unintended content. Empirically, we show the effectiveness of BadChain for two COT strategies across four LLMs (Llama2, GPT-3.5, PaLM2, and GPT-4) and six complex benchmark tasks encompassing arithmetic, commonsense, and symbolic reasoning. We show that the baseline backdoor attacks designed for simpler tasks such as semantic classification will fail on these complicated tasks. In addition, our findings reveal that LLMs endowed with stronger reasoning capabilities exhibit higher susceptibility to BadChain, exemplified by a high average attack success rate of 97.0\% across the six benchmark tasks on GPT-4. We also demonstrate the interpretability of BadChain by showing that the relationship between the trigger and the backdoor reasoning step can be well-explained based on the output of the backdoored model. Finally, we propose two defenses based on shuffling and demonstrate their overall ineffectiveness against BadChain. Therefore, BadChain remains a severe threat to LLMs, underscoring the urgency for the development of robust and effective future defenses.

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