A3FL: Adversarially Adaptive Backdoor Attacks to Federated Learning

Hangfan Zhang · Jinyuan Jia · Jinghui Chen · Lu Lin · Dinghao Wu

Great Hall & Hall B1+B2 (level 1) #1709
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Wed 13 Dec 3 p.m. PST — 5 p.m. PST


Federated Learning (FL) is a distributed machine learning paradigm that allows multiple clients to train a global model collaboratively without sharing their local training data. Due to its distributed nature, many studies have shown that it is vulnerable to backdoor attacks. However, existing studies usually used a predetermined, fixed backdoor trigger or optimized it based solely on the local data and model without considering the global training dynamics. This leads to sub-optimal and less durable attack effectiveness, i.e., their attack success rate is low when the attack budget is limited and decreases quickly if the attacker can no longer perform attacks anymore. To address these limitations, we propose A3FL, a new backdoor attack which adversarially adapts the backdoor trigger to make it less likely to be removed by the global training dynamics. Our key intuition is that the difference between the global model and the local model in FL makes the local-optimized trigger much less effective when transferred to the global model. We solve this by optimizing the trigger to even survive the worst-case scenario where the global model was trained to directly unlearn the trigger. Extensive experiments on benchmark datasets are conducted for twelve existing defenses to comprehensively evaluate the effectiveness of our A3FL. Our code is available at

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