Toward practical and private online services




Gupta, Trinabh

Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



Today's common online services (social networks, media streaming, messaging, email, etc.) bring convenience. However, these services are susceptible to privacy leaks. Certainly, email snooping by rogue employees, email server hacks, and accidental disclosures of user ratings for movies are some sources of private information leakage. This dissertation investigates the following question: Can we build systems that (a) provide strong privacy guarantees to the users, (b) are consistent with existing commercial and policy regimes, and (c) are affordable?

Satisfying all three requirements simultaneously is challenging, as providing strong privacy guarantees usually necessitates either sacrificing functionality, incurring high resource costs, or both. Indeed, there are powerful cryptographic protocols---private information retrieval (PIR), and secure two-party computation (2PC)---that provide strong guarantees but are orders of magnitude more expensive than their non-private counterparts. This dissertation takes these protocols as a starting point and then substantially reduces their costs by tailoring them using application-specific properties. It presents two systems, Popcorn and Pretzel, built on this design ethos.

Popcorn is a Netflix-like media delivery system, that provably hides, even from the content distributor (for example, Netflix), which movie a user is watching. Popcorn tailors PIR protocols to the media domain. It amortizes the server-side overhead of PIR by batching requests from the large number of concurrent users retrieving content at any given time; and, it forms large batches without introducing playback delays by leveraging the properties of media streaming. Popcorn is consistent with the prevailing commercial regime (copyrights, etc.), and its per-request dollar cost is 3.87 times that of a non-private system.

The other system described in this dissertation, Pretzel, is an email system that encrypts emails end-to-end between senders and intended recipients, but allows the email service provider to perform content-based spam filtering and targeted advertising. Pretzel refines a 2PC protocol. It reduces the resource consumption of the protocol by replacing the underlying encryption scheme with a more efficient one, applying a packing technique to conserve invocations of the encryption algorithm, and pruning the inputs to the protocol. Pretzel's costs, versus a legacy non-private implementation, are estimated to be up to 5.4 times for the email provider, with additional but modest client-side requirements.

Popcorn and Pretzel have fundamental connections. For instance, the cryptographic protocols in both systems securely compute vector-matrix products. However, we observe that differences in the vector and matrix dimensions lead to different system designs.

Ultimately, both systems represent a potentially appealing compromise: sacrifice some functionality to build in strong privacy properties at affordable costs.


LCSH Subject Headings