The Limitations of Federated Learning in Sybil Settings


Clement Fung, Carnegie Mellon University; Chris J. M. Yoon and Ivan Beschastnikh, University of British Columbia


Federated learning over distributed multi-party data is an emerging paradigm that iteratively aggregates updates from a group of devices to train a globally shared model. Relying on a set of devices, however, opens up the door for sybil attacks: malicious devices may be controlled by a single adversary who directs these devices to attack the system.

We consider the susceptibility of federated learning to sybil attacks and propose a taxonomy of sybil objectives and strategies in this setting. We describe a new DoS attack that we term training inflation and present several ways to carry out this attack. We then evaluate recent distributed ML fault tolerance proposals and show that these are insufficient to mitigate several sybil-based attacks. Finally, we introduce a defense against targeted sybil-based poisoning called FoolsGold, which identifies sybils based on the diversity of client updates. We show that FoolsGold exceeds state of the art approaches when countering several types of poisoning attacks. Our work is open source and is available online:

Open Access Media

USENIX is committed to Open Access to the research presented at our events. Papers and proceedings are freely available to everyone once the event begins. Any video, audio, and/or slides that are posted after the event are also free and open to everyone. Support USENIX and our commitment to Open Access.

@inproceedings {259745,
author = {Clement Fung and Chris J. M. Yoon and Ivan Beschastnikh},
title = {The Limitations of Federated Learning in Sybil Settings},
booktitle = {23rd International Symposium on Research in Attacks, Intrusions and Defenses ({RAID} 2020)},
year = {2020},
isbn = {978-1-939133-18-2},
address = {San Sebastian},
pages = {301--316},
url = {},
publisher = {{USENIX} Association},
month = oct,