Limits of Machine Learning for Automatic Vulnerability Detection

Recent results of machine learning for automatic vulnerability detection have been very promising indeed: Given only the source code of a function f, models trained by machine learning techniques can decide if f contains a security flaw with up to 70% accuracy.

But how do we know that these results are general and not specific to the datasets? To study this question, researchers proposed to amplify the testing set by injecting semantic preserving changes and found that the model's accuracy significantly drops. In other words, the model uses some unrelated features during classification. In order to increase the robustness of the model, researchers proposed to train on amplified training data, and indeed model accuracy increased to previous levels.

In this paper, we replicate and continue this investigation, and provide an actionable model benchmarking methodology to help researchers better evaluate advances in machine learning for vulnerability detection. Specifically, we propose (i) a cross validation algorithm, where a semantic preserving transformation is applied during the amplification of either the training set or the testing set, and (ii) the amplification of the testing set with code snippets where the vulnerabilities are fixed. Using 11 transformations, 3 ML techniques, and 2 datasets, we find that the improved robustness only applies to the specific transformations used during training data amplification. In other words, the robustified models still rely on unrelated features for predicting the vulnerabilities in the testing data. Additionally, we find that the trained models are unable to generalize to the modified setting which requires to distinguish vulnerable functions from their patches.

Read the full paper on arXiv.