Privacy-Utility Trade-Offs Against Limited Adversaries

Xiaoming Duan, Zhe Xu, Rui Yan, Ufuk Topcu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We study privacy-utility trade-offs where users share privacy-correlated useful information with a service provider to obtain some utility. The service provider is adversarial in the sense that it can infer the users' private information based on the shared useful information. To minimize the privacy leakage while maintaining a desired level of utility, the users carefully perturb the useful information via a probabilistic privacy mapping before sharing it. We focus on the setting in which the adversary attempting an inference attack on the users' privacy has biased information about the statistical correlation between the private and useful variables. This information asymmetry between the users and the limited adversary is shown to lead to better privacy guarantees. We first identify assumptions on the adversary's information so that the inference costs are well-defined. Then, we characterize the impact of the information asymmetry and show that it increases the inference costs for the adversary. We further formulate the design of the privacy mapping against a limited adversary as a difference of convex functions program and solve it via the concave-convex procedure. When the adversary's information is not precisely available, we adopt a Bayesian view and represent the adversary's information by a probability distribution. In this case, the expected cost for the adversary does not admit a closed-form expression, and we establish and maximize a lower bound of it. We provide a numerical example to illustrate the theoretical results.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-8
Number of pages8
JournalIEEE Transactions on Automatic Control
StateAccepted/In press - 2023


  • Correlation
  • Costs
  • Distortion
  • Entropy
  • Mutual information
  • Privacy
  • Random variables

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Control and Systems Engineering
  • Computer Science Applications
  • Electrical and Electronic Engineering


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