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On Success and Simplicity: A Second Look at Transferable Targeted Attacks

Zhengyu Zhao · Zhuoran Liu · Martha Larson


Keywords: [ Adversarial Robustness and Security ]


Achieving transferability of targeted attacks is reputed to be remarkably difficult. The current state of the art has resorted to resource-intensive solutions that necessitate training model(s) for each target class with additional data. In our investigation, we find, however, that simple transferable attacks which require neither model training nor additional data can achieve surprisingly strong targeted transferability. This insight has been overlooked until now, mainly because the widespread practice of attacking with only few iterations has largely limited the attack convergence to optimal targeted transferability. In particular, we, for the first time, identify that a very simple logit loss can largely surpass the commonly adopted cross-entropy loss, and yield even better results than the resource-intensive state of the art. Our analysis spans a variety of transfer scenarios, especially including three new, realistic scenarios: an ensemble transfer scenario with little model similarity, a worse-case scenario with low-ranked target classes, and also a real-world attack on the Google Cloud Vision API. Results in these new transfer scenarios demonstrate that the commonly adopted, easy scenarios cannot fully reveal the actual strength of different attacks and may cause misleading comparative results. We also show the usefulness of the simple logit loss for generating targeted universal adversarial perturbations in a data-free manner. Overall, the aim of our analysis is to inspire a more meaningful evaluation on targeted transferability. Code is available at

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