Instruction-Data Separation in LLMs: A Study on Safeguarding AI from Manipulation with the SEP (Should it be Executed or Processed?) Dataset Introduction and Evaluation

Large Language Models (LLMs) are central to modern artificial intelligence applications, providing the computational intellect required to understand and generate human-like text. These models have been pivotal in various fields, from enabling advanced search engine functionalities to creating custom solutions for specific industries through natural language processing. The flexibility and adaptability of LLMs to comprehend instructions in natural language form the crux of their widespread adoption.

A significant concern that shadows the advancements in LLM technology is ensuring these models operate safely and as intended, especially when interacting with many data sources, some of which may need to be more reliable. The core of this issue lies in the models’ ability to distinguish between the commands they are supposed to execute and the data they are meant to process. The absence of a clear boundary between these two aspects can lead to models executing tasks or commands that were never intended, thereby compromising their safety and reliability.

Efforts to secure LLMs have concentrated on mitigating the risk of jailbreaks, where the models are tricked into bypassing their safety protocols. However, these measures often need to pay more attention to the nuanced problem of differentiating instructions from data. This oversight leaves a gaping vulnerability where models could be manipulated through sophisticated means such as indirect prompt injections, essentially commands hidden within data to exploit this ambiguity.

The researchers from ISTA and CISPA Helmholtz Center for Information Security pioneers a novel approach by introducing a formal and empirical measure to evaluate the degree of separation between instructions and data within LLMs. They also introduce the SEP dataset (Should it be Executed or Processed?), offering a unique resource to systematically assess and benchmark the performance of LLMs against this critical safety criterion. This dataset is designed to challenge models with inputs that blur the lines between commands and data, providing a robust framework for identifying potential weaknesses in instruction-data separation.

An aspect of the study is its analytical framework, which evaluates how LLMs handle probe strings, inputs that could be seen as commands or data. The researchers’ method quantifies a model’s propensity to treat these probes as one or the other, offering a tangible metric to gauge a model’s vulnerability to manipulation. Initial findings from testing several leading LLMs, including GPT-3.5 and GPT-4, reveal a stark reality: none of the models demonstrated satisfactory levels of instruction-data separation. GPT-3.5 had an empirical separation score of 0.653, while GPT-4 scored lower at 0.225, indicating a significant risk of executing unintended instructions.

In conclusion, the study uncovers a critical vulnerability in the foundational operational principles of Large Language Models, the blurring lines between instructions and data. The innovative SEP dataset and comprehensive evaluation framework quantitatively demonstrate the extent of this issue across several state-of-the-art models. The results argue for a paradigm shift in how LLMs are designed and trained, emphasizing the urgent need for models that can separate instructions from data, enhancing their safety and reliability in real-world applications.


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Hello, My name is Adnan Hassan. I am a consulting intern at Marktechpost and soon to be a management trainee at American Express. I am currently pursuing a dual degree at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. I am passionate about technology and want to create new products that make a difference.

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