SoK: Gradient Leakage in Federated Learning

Federated learning (FL) enables collaborative model training among multiple clients without raw data exposure. However, recent studies have shown that clients' private training data can be reconstructed from the gradients they share in FL, known as gradient inversion attacks (GIAs). While GIAs have demonstrated effectiveness under \emph{ideal settings and auxiliary assumptions}, their actual efficacy against \emph{practical FL systems} remains under-explored. To address this gap, we conduct a comprehensive study on GIAs in this work. We start with a survey of GIAs that establishes a milestone to trace their evolution and develops a systematization to uncover their inherent threats. Specifically, we categorize the auxiliary assumptions used by existing GIAs based on their practical accessibility to potential adversaries. To facilitate deeper analysis, we highlight the challenges that GIAs face in practical FL systems from three perspectives: \textit{local training}, \textit{model}, and \textit{post-processing}. We then perform extensive theoretical and empirical evaluations of state-of-the-art GIAs across diverse settings, utilizing eight datasets and thirteen models. Our findings indicate that GIAs have inherent limitations when reconstructing data under practical local training settings. Furthermore, their efficacy is sensitive to the trained model, and even simple post-processing measures applied to gradients can be effective defenses. Overall, our work provides crucial insights into the limited effectiveness of GIAs in practical FL systems. By rectifying prior misconceptions, we hope to inspire more accurate and realistic investigations on this topic.

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