Practical Private Information Retrieval
Olumofin, Femi George
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In recent years, the subject of online privacy has been attracting much interest, especially as more Internet users than ever are beginning to care about the privacy of their online activities. Privacy concerns are even prompting legislators in some countries to demand from service providers a more privacy-friendly Internet experience for their citizens. These are welcomed developments and in stark contrast to the practice of Internet censorship and surveillance that legislators in some nations have been known to promote. The development of Internet systems that are able to protect user privacy requires private information retrieval (PIR) schemes that are practical, because no other efficient techniques exist for preserving the confidentiality of the retrieval requests and responses of a user from an Internet system holding unencrypted data. This thesis studies how PIR schemes can be made more relevant and practical for the development of systems that are protective of users' privacy. Private information retrieval schemes are cryptographic constructions for retrieving data from a database, without the database (or database administrator) being able to learn any information about the content of the query. PIR can be applied to preserve the confidentiality of queries to online data sources in many domains, such as online patents, real-time stock quotes, Internet domain names, location-based services, online behavioural profiling and advertising, search engines, and so on. In this thesis, we study private information retrieval and obtain results that seek to make PIR more relevant in practice than all previous treatments of the subject in the literature, which have been mostly theoretical. We also show that PIR is the most computationally efficient known technique for providing access privacy under realistic computation powers and network bandwidths. Our result covers all currently known varieties of PIR schemes. We provide a more detailed summary of our contributions below: Our first result addresses an existing question regarding the computational practicality of private information retrieval schemes. We show that, unlike previously argued, recent lattice-based computational PIR schemes and multi-server information-theoretic PIR schemes are much more computationally efficient than a trivial transfer of the entire PIR database from the server to the client (i.e., trivial download). Our result shows the end-to-end response times of these schemes are one to three orders of magnitude (10--1000 times) smaller than the trivial download of the database for realistic computation powers and network bandwidths. This result extends and clarifies the well-known result of Sion and Carbunar on the computational practicality of PIR. Our second result is a novel approach for preserving the privacy of sensitive constants in an SQL query, which improves substantially upon the earlier work. Specifically, we provide an expressive data access model of SQL atop of the existing rudimentary index- and keyword-based data access models of PIR. The expressive SQL-based model developed results in between 7 and 480 times improvement in query throughput than previous work. We then provide a PIR-based approach for preserving access privacy over large databases. Unlike previously published access privacy approaches, we explore new ideas about privacy-preserving constraint-based query transformations, offline data classification, and privacy-preserving queries to index structures much smaller than the databases. This work addresses an important open problem about how real systems can systematically apply existing PIR schemes for querying large databases. In terms of applications, we apply PIR to solve user privacy problem in the domains of patent database query and location-based services, user and database privacy problems in the domain of the online sales of digital goods, and a scalability problem for the Tor anonymous communication network. We develop practical tools for most of our techniques, which can be useful for adding PIR support to existing and new Internet system designs.
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