AI Security

How Multimodal Attacks Exploit Models Trained on Multiple Data Types

The term “model” often conjures images of complex algorithms sorting through numbers, text, or perhaps even images. But what if a single model could handle not just one type of data but many? Enter multimodal models, the high-performers of machine learning that can interpret text, analyze images, understand audio, and sometimes even more, all at the same time. These models have revolutionized industries from healthcare to self-driving cars by offering more comprehensive insights and decision-making capabilities.

Yet, as we continue to integrate these advanced models into our daily lives, an urgent question emerges: How secure are they? Could they become the prime target for cyber attackers, as our world grows more dependent on increasingly complex ML models?

The Rise of Multimodal Models

As technology evolves, so too does our need for more advanced and capable machine learning models. This desire for increased functionality has paved the way for the rise of what are known as multimodal models. But what exactly are these models, and why are they suddenly so central to discussions in technology and cybersecurity?

What Are Multimodal Models?

In simplest terms, a multimodal model is a type of machine learning algorithm designed to process more than one type of data, be it text, images, audio, or even video. Traditional models often specialize in one form of data; for example, text models focus solely on textual information, while image recognition models zero in on visual data. In contrast, a multimodal model combines these specializations, allowing it to analyze and make predictions based on a diverse range of data inputs.

Why Are They Gaining Popularity?

The integration of multiple data types in a single model offers a host of benefits that contribute to the rapid adoption of multimodal models.

Improved Accuracy and Functionality

By leveraging different kinds of data, multimodal models achieve more accurate and nuanced outcomes than their single-modal counterparts. For instance, a healthcare model analyzing both medical images and patient history is more likely to make an accurate diagnosis than a model looking solely at one or the other.

How Multimodal Attacks Work

Understanding the concept of multimodal models is just the tip of the iceberg. Now, let’s dive into the mechanics of multimodal attacks, which exploit the complexities of these advanced systems.

Exploiting Data Type Vulnerabilities

While the multi-faceted nature of multimodal models offers many advantages, it also creates several avenues for potential exploitation. Below, we examine in greater detail how each type of data, text, image, audio, and sensor data, can be targeted by attackers to deceive or disable these advanced algorithms.

Text Data: Text-based attacks can take various forms, such as inserting misleading or outright false information into a data set, also known as “data poisoning.” In more advanced cases, natural language processing models can even be deceived through “adversarial text” techniques. Here, an attacker uses a sophisticated understanding of language and syntax to create text that appears normal but leads the model to incorrect conclusions or actions.

Example: In sentiment analysis models, an attacker could craft text that appears neutral but is interpreted as positive, thereby skewing data analytics and potentially leading to misguided business decisions.

Image Data: Visual data is another common target for attackers, particularly as image recognition technologies become more prevalent. Through techniques like pixel manipulation or adding deceptive overlays, an attacker can subtly alter an image in ways undetectable to the human eye but entirely misleading to a machine-learning model.

Example: In facial recognition systems, slight alterations to facial features can render someone virtually “invisible” or even misidentified as another individual. Such tampering can have severe implications for security systems.

Audio Data: In an age where voice-activated systems are entering homes and businesses, audio data vulnerabilities are a growing concern. Attackers can inject noise, alter pitch, or introduce spoken commands below the audible range to interfere with voice recognition or sentiment analysis models.

Example: A smart home system that uses voice commands could be fooled into unlocking doors or disabling security measures if the audio data is compromised.

Sensor Data: Sensor data is often crucial in safety-critical systems like industrial machinery or autonomous vehicles. Tampering with this data type can produce disastrous outcomes. By feeding incorrect or manipulated sensor readings into the model, an attacker can cause malfunctions or unsafe conditions.

Example: In autonomous vehicles, an attacker might manipulate GPS or LiDAR data, making the car misjudge distances or even perceive obstacles that aren’t there, leading to potential accidents.

Synchronized Attacks

While attacking individual data types is problematic, imagine the compounded effect of synchronizing these attacks. By simultaneously targeting multiple data types within a single multimodal model, attackers could amplify the model’s errors and the chaos they cause. For example, imagine a voice-activated system in an autonomous car that also relies on video and sensor data. If all these data types were manipulated at once, the results could be catastrophic.

Real-world Examples and Recent Research

The idea that multimodal models could be susceptible to attacks isn’t just academic speculation; it’s a real and growing concern that could have serious implications across various sectors. From healthcare to smart cities to social media, the risks are diverse and significant.

Healthcare Systems

In the healthcare sector, multimodal models are often critical in diagnostics, treatment planning, and patient monitoring. These systems may use a combination of text-based medical records, imaging data like X-rays or MRIs, and even real-time sensor data for patient monitoring. A well-orchestrated attack on such a system could be catastrophic. For instance, an attacker could alter text-based medical records to change crucial information like blood type or allergy history. This could result in incorrect diagnoses or treatments, potentially putting lives at risk. Moreover, manipulated medical images could lead to misdiagnoses, potentially causing harmful or unnecessary treatments [1][2].

Smart Cities

Smart cities rely on a wide array of sensors and data types to manage everything from traffic flow to law enforcement. In this context, the fusion of text, image, and sensor data offers an attractive target for cyber attackers. Imagine an attacker tampering with the sensor data that controls traffic lights at a busy intersection, causing unforeseen traffic chaos. In a worst-case scenario, this could even lead to accidents. Likewise, if false information were inserted into a surveillance system, it could mislead law enforcement efforts, potentially causing harm and spreading fear among the populace [3][4].

Social Media Algorithms

Social media platforms are increasingly employing multimodal algorithms to curate content for users. These algorithms often analyze text, images, and sometimes video data to determine what appears on your feed. An attacker could exploit these algorithms to spread misinformation or malicious content at an unprecedented scale. For example, by subtly manipulating the text and images in posts, an attacker could trick the algorithm into promoting false or harmful information, thereby accelerating the spread of disinformation campaigns [5][6].

The Consequences of Multimodal Attacks

The ramifications of multimodal attacks extend beyond mere technical glitches, infiltrating various aspects of business and society at large. At the most basic level, these attacks compromise data integrity, eroding the quality and reliability of information that institutions depend on for critical decision-making. This disruption can lead to significant financial fallout as businesses might face revenue losses from system downtimes, customer attrition due to compromised services, and hefty fines for failing to protect sensitive data. Beyond the economic impact, there are pressing social and ethical implications. Multimodal attacks could facilitate the spread of misinformation, making it challenging for individuals to discern truth from fabrication. Additionally, the manipulation of personalized data raises serious privacy concerns, as attackers could exploit this information to target individuals in various nefarious ways. Overall, the threats posed by multimodal attacks necessitate a comprehensive approach to cybersecurity, one that considers not just the technological vulnerabilities but also the broader social and economic repercussions.

Protecting Against Multimodal Attacks

Current Mitigation Strategies

Currently, protection against multimodal attacks relies heavily on a multi-layered defense strategy that includes conventional methods like firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and regular software updates. Additionally, specialized techniques such as adversarial training, which exposes models to manipulated data during the training phase, are increasingly being adopted. Machine learning-based anomaly detection is also a promising approach that helps in identifying irregular patterns within data, signaling potential attacks. These strategies are generally designed to safeguard against known vulnerabilities in the data types used in multimodal models.

Future Directions

Looking ahead, more proactive and dynamic solutions will be essential in combating the evolving nature of multimodal attacks. On the technological front, employing federated learning can decentralize data processing, thereby reducing the potential points of failure. Also, leveraging explainable AI can help in diagnosing which part of a multimodal model has been compromised, aiding in quicker remediation. From a policy standpoint, stronger regulations concerning data security and the ethical use of AI are essential. These could include stringent penalties for data breaches and an enforced requirement for companies to disclose the architecture of their models to third-party audits without revealing proprietary information.


As multimodal models continue to gain prominence across diverse sectors for their ability to integrate and interpret multiple data types, the security risks associated with them are concurrently escalating. These vulnerabilities not only compromise data integrity but also pose significant financial, social, and ethical challenges. Current mitigation strategies offer some level of protection but must evolve to meet the sophistication of emerging threats. Future measures should, therefore, focus on technological innovation and stronger regulatory frameworks to safeguard against the multifaceted risks presented by multimodal attacks. This comprehensive approach will be pivotal in maintaining the integrity and trustworthiness of multimodal models in our increasingly interconnected digital landscape.


  1. Ahamed, F., Farid, F., Suleiman, B., Jan, Z., Wahsheh, L. A., & Shahrestani, S. (2022). An intelligent multimodal biometric authentication model for personalised healthcare services. Future Internet14(8), 222.
  2. Nguyen, P. T., Huynh, V. D. B., Vo, K. D., Phan, P. T., Elhoseny, M., & Le, D. N. (2021). Deep Learning Based Optimal Multimodal Fusion Framework for Intrusion Detection Systems for Healthcare Data. Computers, Materials & Continua66(3).
  3. Sedik, A., Faragallah, O. S., El-sayed, H. S., El-Banby, G. M., El-Samie, F. E. A., Khalaf, A. A., & El-Shafai, W. (2022). An efficient cybersecurity framework for facial video forensics detection based on multimodal deep learning. Neural Computing and Applications, 1-18.
  4. Attar, H. (2023). Joint IoT/ML Platforms for Smart Societies and Environments: A Review on Multimodal Information-Based Learning for Safety and Security. ACM Journal of Data and Information Quality.
  5. Hameleers, M., Powell, T. E., Van Der Meer, T. G., & Bos, L. (2020). A picture paints a thousand lies? The effects and mechanisms of multimodal disinformation and rebuttals disseminated via social media. Political communication37(2), 281-301.
  6. Bhowmick, R. S., Ganguli, I., Paul, J., & Sil, J. (2021). A multimodal deep framework for derogatory social media post identification of a recognized person. Transactions on Asian and Low-Resource Language Information Processing21(1), 1-19.

For 30+ years, I've been committed to protecting people, businesses, and the environment from the physical harm caused by cyber-kinetic threats, blending cybersecurity strategies and resilience and safety measures. Lately, my worries have grown due to the rapid, complex advancements in Artificial Intelligence (AI). Having observed AI's progression for two decades and penned a book on its future, I see it as a unique and escalating threat, especially when applied to military systems, disinformation, or integrated into critical infrastructure like 5G networks or smart grids. More about me.

Luka Ivezic
Luka Ivezic

Luka Ivezic is the Lead Cybersecurity Consultant for Europe at the Information Security Forum (ISF), a leading global, independent, and not-for-profit organisation dedicated to cybersecurity and risk management. Before joining ISF, Luka served as a cybersecurity consultant and manager at PwC and Deloitte. His journey in the field began as an independent researcher focused on cyber and geopolitical implications of emerging technologies such as AI, IoT, 5G. He co-authored with Marin the book "The Future of Leadership in the Age of AI". Luka holds a Master's degree from King's College London's Department of War Studies, where he specialized in the disinformation risks posed by AI.

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