Honest-but-Curious Nets: Sensitive Attributes of Private Inputs Can Be Secretly Coded into the Classifiers' Outputs

25 May 2021  ·  Mohammad Malekzadeh, Anastasia Borovykh, Deniz Gündüz ·

It is known that deep neural networks, trained for the classification of non-sensitive target attributes, can reveal sensitive attributes of their input data through internal representations extracted by the classifier. We take a step forward and show that deep classifiers can be trained to secretly encode a sensitive attribute of their input data into the classifier's outputs for the target attribute, at inference time. Our proposed attack works even if users have a full white-box view of the classifier, can keep all internal representations hidden, and only release the classifier's estimations for the target attribute. We introduce an information-theoretical formulation for such attacks and present efficient empirical implementations for training honest-but-curious (HBC) classifiers: classifiers that can be accurate in predicting their target attribute, but can also exploit their outputs to secretly encode a sensitive attribute. Our work highlights a vulnerability that can be exploited by malicious machine learning service providers to attack their user's privacy in several seemingly safe scenarios; such as encrypted inferences, computations at the edge, or private knowledge distillation. Experimental results on several attributes in two face-image datasets show that a semi-trusted server can train classifiers that are not only perfectly honest but also accurately curious. We conclude by showing the difficulties in distinguishing between standard and HBC classifiers, discussing challenges in defending against this vulnerability of deep classifiers, and enumerating related open directions for future studies.

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