Certified Robustness to Word Substitution Ranking Attack for Neural Ranking Models

Chen Wu, Ruqing Zhang, Jiafeng Guo, Wei Chen, Yixing Fan, Maarten de Rijke, Xueqi Cheng

Neural ranking models (NRMs) have achieved promising results in information retrieval. NRMs have also been shown to be vulnerable to adversarial examples. A typical Word Substitution Ranking Attack (WSRA) against NRMs was proposed recently, in which an attacker promotes a target document in rankings by adding human-imperceptible perturbations to its text. This raises concerns when deploying NRMs in real-world applications. Therefore, it is important to develop techniques that defend against such attacks for NRMs. In empirical defenses adversarial examples are found during training and used to augment the training set. However, such methods offer no theoretical guarantee on the models' robustness and may eventually be broken by other sophisticated WSRAs. To escape this arms race, rigorous and provable certified defense methods for NRMs are needed. To this end, we first define the \textit{Certified Top-$K$ Robustness} for ranking models since users mainly care about the top ranked results in real-world scenarios. A ranking model is said to be Certified Top-$K$ Robust on a ranked list when it is guaranteed to keep documents that are out of the top $K$ away from the top $K$ under any attack. Then, we introduce a Certified Defense method, named CertDR, to achieve certified top-$K$ robustness against WSRA, based on the idea of randomized smoothing. Specifically, we first construct a smoothed ranker by applying random word substitutions on the documents, and then leverage the ranking property jointly with the statistical property of the ensemble to provably certify top-$K$ robustness. Extensive experiments on two representative web search datasets demonstrate that CertDR can significantly outperform state-of-the-art empirical defense methods for ranking models.

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