The fundamental laws of private information retrieval

I was recently writing an entirely different blog post and went down a rabbit hole about private information retrieval (PIR), discovering all the bad intuitions that I have about this problem. So now you get a blog post about my misconceptions about PIR, rather than the blog post I was originally intending to write (though maybe that one will eventually get written too). I’ll first give a brief introduction to PIR, and then walk through some of the fundamental laws of nature regarding this problem that were completely mismatched with my intuitions.

Private information retrieval

Suppose there is a server with a database of n bits, indexed from 0 to n-1. The client has an index of interest and wants to retrieve the value of the bit in the database at that index. The catch is that the client wants to do this retrieval without the server learning which bit the client is interested in. In fact, the client doesn’t want the server to learn anything at all about its query. For example, if the server can even deduce that there is some index that the client is not querying, that knowledge would violate this privacy requirement.

A simple way to accomplish this privacy goal is for the server to send the whole database to the client, and the client can simply read the bit at its index of interest. Of course this scheme is quite inefficient, so PIR researchers try to develop more efficient schemes that maintain the same privacy for the client’s query. (You might notice that this simple scheme is not just inefficient but also possibly problematic in another sense of privacy: the server might not want to leak its entire database to the client. PIR doesn’t generally address privacy for the server, but another type of protocol called oblivious transfer does.)

There are many different types of efficiency that might matter for any particular PIR application, but in this post I’ll be mostly talking about communication costs and server computation costs. In the simple scheme I just described, both communication and server computation are linear in the size of the database. In general, the communication cost is a lower bound on the server computation costs, since the server has to at least read or write every bit that is sent.

There are various different flavors of PIR. Most relevantly to this post, a PIR scheme can be:

  • Information-theoretically secure vs. computationally secure. As in other types of cryptography, information theoretically secure means that an attacker with no limits on their computational power or time still cannot break the scheme. What the attacker sees is uniformly randomly distributed across the set of possible messages: there is literally zero information about what element is being queried in the messages that the attacker sees. In other words, the client’s queries are distributed identically regardless of which database element the client is querying for. Computationally secure, on the other hand, means that the distribution that the attacker sees may not be actually uniformly random, but it’s computationally indistinguishable from random. In the case of computationally secure PIR, no efficient (polynomially-bounded) attacker can distinguish a query for one element from a query for another element. In the rest of this post, I’ll be talking almost exclusively about information-theoretical PIR.
  • Single-server vs. multi-server. The single-server setting is the straightforward setting I described initially: a server holds a database of bits, and a client exchanges messages with the server to retrieve the bit at an index of interest. In the multi-server setting, there are multiple servers that each hold a copy of the database, and the client exchanges messages with these multiple servers to query the index of interest. Multi-server is typically used in information theoretic PIR, because, as you will see below, multiple servers are necessary for efficiency in the information theoretic setting. Importantly, the servers are assumed to be non-colluding; that is, the information-theoretic security of the scheme only holds if the servers don’t exchange information with each other.
  • Entirely online vs. offline/online. So far I’ve described entirely online PIR, meaning that the entire protocol happens at query time. There are also schemes that introduce a preprocessing phase (where the server does some preprocessing work ahead of time) and/or an offline phase (an interactive protocol between the client and server that happens ahead of time, before the client knows which index it will be querying later on in the online phase).

What started me down this PIR rabbit hole was a paper that introduces an information-theoretically secure, two-server, online/offline protocol. While the paper is very well-written, I don’t have a lot of background in the area, and I found myself mystified by how each of these design choices contributed to the final result. Why two servers and not three or one? What, concretely, does the offline phase actually buy you? I then went and read a bunch of other papers and gradually pieced together the answers to these questions, many of which involve several fundamental laws of PIR, and I think I better understand now what various design choices can or cannot buy you in a PIR scheme.

Law of PIR #1: Information theoretically secure PIR cannot be more efficient than sending the whole database.

The first law of PIR is that if you want information theoretical security and you want efficiency, then you must have more than one server. And there seem to be general ways to turn information theoretically secure multi-server schemes into computationally secure single-server schemes that have similar costs, though I didn’t dive deeply into that particular corner of the rabbit hole. So if you’re designing a PIR scheme, you might as well focus on an information theoretically secure multi-server scheme to get the best bang for your buck.

Here I suffered a lack of intuition; it wasn’t immediately clear to me why multi-server schemes can achieve efficiency that single-server schemes inherently cannot, so I went and read the proof of this law of nature. (As an aside, one of the fun things about PIR, especially information theoretic, is that it doesn’t involve much fancy math at all; the proof of this law of nature is one paragraph long, and the fanciest math I’ll be talking about in this post is an exclusive-or.)

Here’s the intuition behind the proof. In a single-server scheme, suppose that T is a transcript from a run of the protocol in which a client queries a server for element i from database D1. Consider some other database D2, where element j has a different value in D1 and D2. By the information theoretic security requirement, T must also be a valid protocol transcript for querying element j from database D1 – this is exactly what information theoretic security means, that the distribution of possible transcripts for querying one element has to be identical to the distribution of possible transcripts for any other element. But this means that T can’t be a valid protocol transcript for querying element j from D2, because item j has different values in D1 and D2, but T can’t lead to the client getting different results. This means, again by the information theoretic security requirement, that T can’t be a valid transcript for querying element i from D2. You can repeat this argument for every one of the 2^n possible databases: that is, every possible database must have at least one unique transcript for querying element i, therefore there must be at least 2^n possible protocol transcripts, requiring n bits to communicate.

Introducing a second server effectively relaxes the privacy requirement (assuming the servers don’t collude with each other), which allows more efficient communication. In a multi-server protocol, it’s not required that any transcript T for fetching some index also be a valid transcript for fetching every other index of the same database. It’s only required that the part of the transcript that each server sees is valid for fetching every other index. It’s therefore no longer necessary that every possible database has at least one of its own unique transcripts for fetching i. Different databases can “share” the same transcript for fetching i without violating privacy because it’s not a requirement that the same full transcript also be valid for an element where the databases differ. Since different databases can share transcripts in this sense, the set of possible transcripts need not be as large as in the single-server setting.

Law of PIR #2: Adding servers cannot reduce server computation costs, though they may be able to reduce communication costs.

This law breaks down into two parts: why more servers can’t reduce computation, and why more servers can reduce communication.

Why can’t more servers reduce computation?

My (completely wrong) initial intuition was that schemes with multiple servers would be able to reduce server computation costs. It seemed to me that one server would have to touch fewer bits if there was another server that was touching other bits that the first server couldn’t see. But it turns out that server computation cannot be sublinear even in a multi-server scheme if you want information theoretic security.

I didn’t go read the formal proof of this law, but it does start to feel intuitive after a while. If the client is querying for element i, at least one of the servers has to read element i from the database (otherwise, there’s no way that the value of element i could be communicated to the client). Suppose there are k servers, and each server reads at most l elements, and each server guesses that i is a randomly selected one of the elements that it reads. Then each server’s probability of a successful guess is at least (1/k)·(1/l) – the probability that this is the server that reads element i times the probability that its random guess is correct. For information-theoretic security to hold, the server’s probability of a successful guess must be no more than 1/n which implies that l has to be at least n/k. In other words, each server must read a number of elements that is linear in n. Sadness.

Why can more servers reduce communication?

We’ve established that adding more servers to a PIR scheme can’t reduce server computation, but multi-server schemes aren’t subject to the same lower bounds on communication. I talked a little bit above, in Law of PIR #1, about why having multiple servers can theoretically reduce communication: with multiple servers, different possible databases can “share” the same protocol transcripts for querying the same element, so the scheme doesn’t need as many possible protocol transcripts and thus fewer bits are needed to express those transcripts. However, this insight still left me with questions, namely: how exactly do multi-server schemes achieve better communication? And, does adding more servers inherently further reduce communication costs?

Let’s look at the basic form of multi-server schemes. Let’s just consider a two server scheme. The basic (inefficient, non-optimized) skeleton of a two server PIR scheme is:

  • The client chooses a random set of elements, where each element is in the set with probability ½ (a set of size n/2 on average).
  • The client chooses one of the two servers and sends this set of elements. The server sends back the exclusive-or of all the values of the elements indexed by the set.
  • The client removes i from the set if it’s present, or adds it if it’s not. The client sends the resulting set to the second server. That server sends back the exclusive-or of all the values of elements indexed by that set.
  • The client exclusive-ors the two responses together, and ends up with the value of the ith element. Voila!

In this scheme, each of the server sees a completely random set of elements (the “exclusive-or” of an element with a random set produces a random set, just as flipping a bit in a random bit-string produces a random bit-string). Thus the servers learn zero information about the client’s query, and yet the client ends up with the value of interest.

The recipe for a communication-efficient two server PIR scheme is now to take this basic scheme and find a clever way to compress the sets in the client’s queries.

For example, one modern approach is to express the sets with a new primitive called puncturable pseudorandom sets, which allows a set of elements to be expressed in terms of a relatively short key that can be efficiently transformed into a key for the same set but with an element added or removed. (Puncturable pseudrorandom sets are based on an existing primitive called puncturable PRFs, which I don’t know too much about but are used for other interesting things like anonymous credentials. Maybe a topic to research for another post.)

The earliest (as far as I can tell) multi-server approach doesn’t use any fancy primitives to compress the sets in the client’s queries. Instead, it re-imagines the database from a bit-string to a matrix of bits. Instead of selecting each element to be in the random set with probability ½, the client selects a set of rows and columns, where each row and column is included with probability ½. The server exclusive-ors all the elements in the cross-product of those rows and columns. The query is now of size sqrt(n) instead of n/2.

But, there’s a catch with this multidimensional scheme: you need more servers to get the correct result. This is because, by compressing the query in this way, the client has lost precision. With elements expressed as a cross-product of rows and columns, the client can’t simply add or remove the single element of interest to the query for the other server. If the client were to add the row and column corresponding to the element of interest, the server would also add in a bunch of other elements from adding that row and column into the cross-product of elements that it reads. We therefore need four servers to cancel out these extra elements: one server gets the original randomly chosen set of rows and columns in its query, one server gets the element of interest’s row added to its set, another server gets the element of interest’s column added to its set, and another server gets the element of interest’s row and column added. (I’ve said “added” for simplicity here, but it’s really “added or removed” depending on whether the row and column of the element of interest were already present in the original randomly selected set.) The responses to all these queries cancel out and leave only the element of interest.

This scheme is especially interesting because it can be generalized to more servers. Instead of a matrix where queries are compressed to sqrt(n) size by expressing them as a cross-product of rows and columns, you can imagine a 3D, 4D, etc. cube that further compresses the queries. As the query gets more and more compressed, it loses more and more precision: adding or removing an element of interest adds more and more elements that aren’t of interest, requiring more and more servers to cancel out those uninteresting elements.

Thus, in this multidimensional scheme, the more servers you have, the lower the communication costs. But it doesn’t seem to be a general fact that adding more servers reduces communication – the more recent scheme that I described above based on puncturable pseudorandom sets doesn’t generalize beyond two servers. In summary: you need at least two servers to get efficient communication, but whether or not it makes communication more efficient to add even more servers depends on the particular scheme.

Law of PIR #3: If you want to reduce server computation, you need a preprocessing or offline phase.

Having probed a bit at why and how adding servers can reduce communication, but not server computation, the final question is how to reduce server computation. Preprocessing is the answer, but I didn’t immediately form an intuition for why preprocessing or an offline phase would help with reducing server computation. The whole intuition behind the lower bound on server computation is that, at query time, the server has to touch a lot of the database to avoid learning anything interesting from its own access pattern, so it seemed to me that reducing the access pattern footprint at query time through any means would fundamentally harm privacy guarantees.

In contrast to my initial intuition, here’s a simple way to see how preprocessing can reduce query-time server computation without harming privacy. Imagine that, in the aforementioned basic two server scheme, the servers precompute the answers to all possible queries they could get, and just look up the answers at query time. This is obviously a prohibitively inefficient preprocessing phase, but it illustrates how work can be moved from online query time to an offline phase without losing privacy.

What would a more interesting (i.e., efficient) preprocessing step look like? Let’s start by seeing what would happen if, in the basic two server scheme, we just started shrinking the number of elements in the queries (reducing both communication and server computation costs). Instead of selecting each element with probability ½, suppose we selected each element with probability ⅓ or ¼, ending up with a set of size n/3 or n/4 on average – or we could even make those numbers smaller. As we shrink the size of the set, the query that contains i starts to get pretty shady. If each server guesses that the element of interest is a random element in its set, the server that received i in its query is going to guess correctly with increasing probability as we shrink the number of elements in the query.

The first crucial observation is that we can avoid that loss in privacy by moving the query that contains i into an offline phase, so that the client doesn’t need to send a privacy-harming query that contains i. One of the servers computes a bunch of sets, computes the answer for each of these sets by exclusive-oring the bits indexed by each set, and sends these answers to the client ahead of time (compressing the sets using one of the methods discussed above, such as puncturable pseudorandom sets). This all happens in an offline phase, before the client begins querying. For example, one way to construct these sets is to randomly divide the database into sqrt(n) sets of size sqrt(n). Now the client can compute the answer to the query containing i by itself, without needing to send this problematic, privacy-leaking query to the server: the client simply looks for a set containing i with the corresponding answer that it already got from the server in the offline phase.

But we’re not quite done: there’s a second crucial observation to make. To complement the answer that the client gets from the offline phase, the client sends the set not containing i to the other server at query time (I’ll call this the non-i query). This query also violates privacy, but not nearly as much as sending a query that contains i. As we shrink the number of elements in the query, the server learns less and less from the query that doesn’t contain i: all the server knows is that the client is not interested in the elements in the query, and that knowledge gets less interesting as the number of elements in the query shrinks. That is, the client telling the server a set of n/3 elements that they’re not interested in is a lot more informational than a smaller set of n/8 or n/32 elements that they’re not interested in.

With a set of size sqrt(n), it turns out, this non-i query contains little enough information that some small tricks can push it out of the realm of usefulness for the adversarial server. One such trick is to, with small probability, just do the wrong query, i.e., the client leaves i in and removes another element at random. This introduces some small correctness error: with this small probability, the client won’t be able to compute the actual answer it is interested in. This can be somewhat clunkily accounted for by repeating the whole scheme in parallel a bunch of times to drive down the correctness error to an acceptable amount. (Interestingly, we get information-theoretic security but not perfect correctness!) Another more recent trick is to, at query time, decide with small probability to send a fresh sqrt(n)-sized query containing i to one server and the same query not containing i to the other server. While I didn’t work through the actual math, I think the idea is that this case happens rarely enough that the servers don’t get any advantage in guessing i, but often enough that it erases the servers’ certainty about what isn’t i.

In summary, the recipe for these schemes is to precompute answers to the most privacy-leaky parts of the online protocol, leaving the online phase with a small enough amount of leakage that it can be wiped out with some small amount of additional computation.

Summary of the laws of PIR

After all that, I’m left with the following understanding: a two server online/offline scheme is the way it is because (a) multiple servers are necessary to achieve information-theoretic security efficiently, (b) single-server computational security can be constructed in a black-box way from a two server information-theoretic scheme, (c) multiple servers are needed to reduce communication for information theoretic security, but adding more than two servers doesn’t necessarily reduce communication further, and (d) an offline phase is needed to reduce server computation. Wphew! Now that I’ve gotten nerd-sniped by all that, maybe someday I will write the blog post I intended to write, of which PIR was just a small part.

Thanks to Lea Kissner, Joe Hall, and Chelsea Komlo for giving me feedback on this post!

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