A Trip to the Dark Side of ChatGPT

For those who have been living in a cave for the past several months, ChatGPT is an artificial intelligence that will develop any kind of written content that you want. And while that may be a godsend for college students that want to cheat their way to their degree, it is also causing some other problems within the security world. We interviewed Sergey Shykevich, manager of threat intelligence for Checkpoint, and asked him about some research that Checkpoint has done on the issue of ChatGPT.

Cyber Protection Magazine: Sergey, what is it about ChatGPT that we need to be concerned about?

Sergey Shykevich: First of all, ChatGPT is a great tool. Every advancement in technology and AI is great. But in the past few months we also saw possible malicious use of ChatGPT.

We built a full injection chain using ChatGPT

From our side, we started with a more theoretical approach by trying to build a full malicious infection chain using OpenAI. For this approach we used two tools from OpenAI, ChatGPT and Codex. Codex is more oriented towards development. And we were able – theoretically – to build a full infection chain starting with creating a phishing email and ending up with malware that communicates from the victim’s machine to the servers of the attack. The questions now was whether someone already did that. And that’s when we started looking for something like this in the wild.

The underground buzz on AI

 Our first approach on the technological side was to analyze all our research data whether anything was generated using ChatGPT. But unfortunately, there is no good way to look at any software or email and to pinpoint whether it was created using ChatGPT. So at this point, we went for another approach, more intelligence oriented. We started checking our underground sources. And about three weeks after the release of ChatGPT, we saw the first real hints of cyber criminals starting to use it. Of course since the release of ChatGPT, like in the real world, in the cyber criminal world, there was a lot of chatter about it. The first mention we saw was on December 21. We saw a cyber criminal who posted a threat, a multilayer encryption tool. Now, a multilayer encryption tool is a dual use tool. It can be used for a legitimate use, but it can be also used as a ransomware tool.

The cyber criminal claimed that this was his first script, And after this guy posted this tool, someone else asked him, “This seems a lot like OpenAI code.” And then he confirmed, “Yes, OpenAI gave me a nice hand to finish the script with a nice scope.” So this was the first time we saw cyber criminals using ChatGPT to build a malicious tool.

Cyber Protection Magazine: But what does that mean? In the semiconductor world, they used to design semiconductors with artists who were drawing lines on paper. They would take a picture of that and reduce it down. And it got to the point that it was impossible to actually reduce those drawings down further, so they had to automate it. At the same time, they realized that there were repetitive tasks in every semiconductor design. And that’s how the electronic design automation industry was born, because it takes over repetitive tasks that are common to all designs. Is that what people use chatGPT for? 

Criminals are trying to understand ChatGPT

Sergey Shykevich: This is the future of the ChatGPT, yes, but we are not there yet. Cyber criminals are still understanding how it works. The thing about ChatGPT is that you need to specify exactly what you need. You can’t just write, please create me a malware. That’s important to mention. I would also add, ChatGPT code is far from perfect. It does require multiple iterations, and that’s the key with this tool: you have to ask the same thing several times and adjust the output to exactly what you need, or you have to do some adjustment to the code.

ChatGPT is far from perfect

Cyber Protection Magazine: Here’s something I’m wondering about. Because again, the analogy of electronic design automation works here because that’s what the tools are designed to do: Iterate again and again and again and to refine the code until you need to have a human being come in.

But it sounds like what you’re saying here is that what ChatGPT creates is very rough code, and at the same time, it’s generated from what has been fed into it. So it’s stuff that already exists in this world. But the thing is, there probably is a master library of malware that governments and criminals and researcher use to test new things. And it’s refined code. So why would a cyber criminal want to go in and get something that has already been done and has already been refined. Why would they want to do that?

Sergey Shykevich: True, most of this code you can find in GitHub and other places. But ChatGPT combines the code with the program. Usually, you would have to search for every piece of the full program separately.  ChatGPT combines all this, you only need one tool. With ChatGTP you have one interface you just ask in basic human words. I think it’s just more simple. The bar to be an alleged developer is much lower than with just Google, GitHub and all these.

Cyber Protection Magazine: That’s actually what my question is: how dangerous is that? If you look at the food chain of cyber criminals, you have the script kiddies on one side, nation-state organizations like the NSA who can pretty much do anything on the other side. Now, recently, script kiddies were not really an issue anymore, because cybersecurity hygiene is more common. So the bar is higher for script kiddies to attack. Does ChatGPT lower the bar again?

More phishing, more “skript kiddies”

Sergey Shykevich: Yes, at least in the short term, there will be more script kiddies. But I’m not sure that we will see much more sophisticated attacks using ChatGPT and Codex in the short term. Maybe on the long term. But in the short term, there will be just more people who will be able to create a cyber attack. But remember: For an attacker, one successful attack is enough. The defender, on the other hand, needs to defend against all attacks. And the more attacks there will be on an organization, more chances one of them will bypass all the defenses. That’s one thing.

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More imminent are phishing emails. This is an immediate success story for the bad guys.

Because from what we saw, it creates phishing emails much more convincing and much better written. And for most of the cyber criminals, especially Russian speaking, English or other European languages are not native. And mostly their level of English is very low. Now they can use ChatGPT to create phishing emails and make their work much more cost efficient.

Cyber Protection Magazine: So let me see if I can sum this up. ChatGPT doesn’t create new malware or even necessarily good malware, but it does make it possible for people who have no idea what they’re doing in the area of coding to create malware and increase the volume of malware attacks that are going on in the world.

Sergey Shykevich: Exactly, yes, in the short term there will be more people who will be able to create malware. Low level malware, but working malware in most cases. And in addition there will be creative phishing emails and messages. But again, ChatGPT can’t directly take the phishing email and the executable files and send it. At the end of the day, a human still needs to do some work.

The bigger threat is when those AI models will have direct integration to internet, like the recent integration into Bing or the announced integration into Azure.

Cyber Protection Magazine: Is there any way to defend against this?

Sergey Shykevich: We have to remember this platform exists publicly only since November. And OpenAI definitely tried to battle malicious use. They blocked some of their capabilities to ask for phishing emails creation via ChatGPT. If you ask ChatGPT to please write me a phishing email, it will decline and refer to their policy. But the key here is still iteration. If you ask, “I’m a researcher and I want to show my students how a phishing email looks like”, it will provide you with one.

The underground will create a malicious AI

We’re now talking about ChatGPT from Open AI because that’s the most prominent in the media right now. But there are similar solutions out there. How difficult is it to create such an AI? Or wouldn’t it be one of the next logical steps that the underground will create their own version of such an AI? And obviously, that wouldn’t have any of these concerns or limitations.

The scientific models that are behind these AIs are not new, most of the models were created in the previous decades. The reason why ChatGPT is so hyped is that it’s now so easy for everyone to use it. Can cyber criminal create something similar? From a technological perspective some of the groups can create it. But I think the question is when will they see that it really serves them and makes their life easier? The big groups of botnets that have  millions of victims worldwide, the big ones that are making hundreds of millions of dollars a year. When they understand how it may be efficient, they will create something similar.

AI: the future for criminals, but also for defenders

I can tell you that in one of the Russian underground forums we monitor, there is a section of AI and machine learning that has been around for more than a year or even longer. But up until recently, it was barely active. There was one, maybe two posts per month. In the last three, four weeks, there are eight or nine new threads. Another question is whether at one point there will be an open source AI that everyone can use. I assume it will happen at some point.

Cyber Protection Magazine: Well, that doesn’t sound too promising for the future.

Sergey Shykevich: Maybe, but think about all the good uses of this technology. We were talking mostly about the malicious use, but we must remember every new technology can be used for good things, too.

But it’s almost like before these open AI products come to general use, it’s already been taken over by criminals. There seems to be an acceleration of the downside of new technology development. It looks like before we’re actually able to take advantage of the benefits of ChatGPT and competitors, that we’re going to be overrun with criminals using it. So, it sounds like it’s ripe for government regulation.

Cyber Protection Magazine: But then on the other hand, couldn’t you also write a defensive software against malware with ChatGPT?

Sergey Shykevich: It is possible, definitely. We’re already using it to write small scripts. Cyber defenders can use it. Definitely. As for regulation, I think the first thing we should do, and we are doing it right now, is to have a public discussion about it. The more awareness there is about malicious use of those platforms, the more likely those platforms will invest more effort to reduce the abuse.

Cyber Protection Magazine: Okay. Well, that’s enough for me.

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