AI PrivacyAI Security

Securing Machine Learning Workflows through Homomorphic Encryption

While ML/AI in its pioneering days might have gotten away by considering data security as optional, these days data security has become critical consideration for any robust ML workflow. The problem is, traditional encryption methods often fall short when it comes to securing ML models and their training data.

Unlike standard encryption techniques, which require data to be decrypted before any processing or analysis, Homomorphic Encryption allows computations to be performed directly on the encrypted data. This mitigates the risks associated with exposing sensitive information during the data processing stage, a vulnerability that has been exploited in various attack vectors like data poisoning and model inversion attacks. Through the utilization of intricate mathematical algorithms and lattice-based cryptography, Homomorphic Encryption ensures that data privacy is preserved without sacrificing the utility or accuracy of the ML models it supports. This enables organizations to confidently leverage machine learning capabilities for sensitive applications in healthcare, finance, and national security.

What Is Data Encryption and Why Is It Essential?

Data encryption employs complex algorithms to convert plain text or other human-readable data into a cipher, an encoded, unreadable format. Decryption keys, held only by authorized parties, are required to convert the data back into its original format. The objective extends beyond just data privacy; it involves ensuring data integrity and authentication as well. In the context of ML, where datasets may consist of sensitive attributes such as personal identifiers or confidential business metrics, encryption becomes an indispensable layer of security. Advanced encryption techniques can also protect data during in-transit and at-rest phases, effectively “sealing off” data vulnerabilities across the machine learning lifecycle.

The Security Imperative

ML models thrive on data; the more varied and vast, the better. These datasets often include an array of sensitive information ranging from healthcare records and financial transactions to user browsing behaviors. This diversity in data types doesn’t just offer richer training material for machine learning algorithms; it also presents multiple attack vectors for malicious entities. Unauthorized access, data manipulation, and outright data theft are risks that can jeopardize not only the integrity of the ML model but also violate privacy regulations, such as GDPR or CCPA. In today’s environment, where a single data breach can result in severe financial and reputational damage, encryption is a necessity. Advanced encryption standards like AES-256 and RSA-2048 have emerged as industry benchmarks in securing highly sensitive data in ML workflows. (Although, these standards are being reconsidered with the impeding arrival of quantum computing.)

Guidelines to Implement Data Encryption

Implementing data encryption in a machine-learning environment requires a nuanced approach considering several variables. These include the specific cryptographic algorithms to be employed, the need to meet stringent regulatory standards, and the computational costs associated with encryption. Each of these variables is crucial for ensuring that the machine-learning pipeline remains secure and efficient.

Symmetric vs. Asymmetric Encryption

Symmetric and asymmetric encryption are the two primary paradigms in modern cryptography, each with its own set of advantages and limitations.

Symmetric Encryption: In this method, a single key is used for encryption and decryption. Algorithms like Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) are commonly used for symmetric encryption. They are relatively fast and require less computational power. However, the challenge here is key distribution and management. Since the same key is used for both processes, it must be shared between parties, increasing the risk of exposure.

Asymmetric Encryption: This approach uses a pair of keys: a public key to encrypt the data and a private key to decrypt it. Algorithms like RSA (Rivest–Shamir–Adleman) are widely used in asymmetric encryption. The advantage is enhanced security, as the private key never needs to be shared. However, the encryption and decryption processes are computationally more intensive, which could be a concern in time-sensitive applications.

Regulatory Compliance

Legal frameworks around data protection are increasingly stringent. Regulations such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the European Union or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) in the United States place rigorous requirements on data encryption.

GDPR: This regulation mandates data controllers and processors implement appropriate technical measures to ensure data security. Advanced cryptographic techniques, including AES and RSA, are often recommended to meet GDPR requirements.

HIPAA: In healthcare applications, where machine learning can be used for tasks like diagnostic imaging or predictive analytics, compliance with HIPAA is a must. This means implementing encryption algorithms that have been approved by recognized institutions like the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

Computational Overheads

The process of encrypting and decrypting data adds computational overhead, affecting the performance of machine learning models, particularly in real-time or near-real-time applications.

Resource Allocation: In applications where computational resources are limited, lightweight cryptographic algorithms may be more appropriate. For example, algorithms like ChaCha20 can offer good security with lower computational requirements.

Performance Metrics: It’s important to closely monitor key performance indicators (KPIs) such as latency and throughput when implementing encryption to ensure that the added security does not compromise the system’s performance.

A Deep Dive into Homomorphic Encryption

Homomorphic Encryption stands out among encryption techniques for its unique ability to enable computations directly on encrypted data. Specifically, fully homomorphic encryption (FHE) supports arbitrary computation on ciphertexts, meaning that the data never needs to be unencrypted outside the users’ environment. This distinctive feature has enormous implications for machine learning workflows, especially in cloud environments and other scenarios where data privacy is a critical concern.

An Overview

Homomorphic Encryption is a class of encryption techniques that permits operations to be executed on ciphertexts, which, when decrypted, yield the same result as if the operation had been performed on plaintext. Unlike traditional encryption schemes that require data to be decrypted before any computational operation, FHE retains data confidentiality throughout the computational process. This is achieved through complex algebraic structures that allow specific types of mathematical operations on encrypted data. Techniques like Ring-LWE (Learning With Errors) and Fan-Vercauteren scheme are commonly employed to make the encryption scheme both secure and efficient.

Advanced Security Measures

The robustness of FHE goes beyond the simple concealment of data. It provides semantic security, ensuring that an unauthorized entity accessing the encrypted data cannot infer any meaningful information without the decryption key. Moreover, modern implementations often employ lattice-based cryptographic approaches, which are believed to resist attacks from quantum computers, adding an additional layer of future-proof security.

Performance Metrics: The Trade-Offs

While Homomorphic Encryption is revolutionary, it has historically been plagued with high computational and storage overheads. These challenges have been mitigated in part by algorithmic improvements and hardware acceleration. For instance, implementing batching techniques and parallel computing can significantly reduce the time required for operations on encrypted data. However, achieving an optimal balance between computational performance and data security remains an active research area.

Potential Use-Cases: Beyond Conventional Boundaries

The applications of Homomorphic Encryption extend far and wide. In healthcare, it can be employed to perform encrypted medical data analysis, thus ensuring patient confidentiality. In finance, secure transactions and fraud detection algorithms can run on encrypted data, enhancing the privacy of financial records. Furthermore, various studies and research papers have demonstrated the utility of Homomorphic Encryption in federated learning, secure multi-party computation, and even voting systems.

Best Practices and Recommendations

When implementing Homomorphic Encryption, it’s essential to consider several best practices for optimum results.

Parameter Selection: Parameters like the noise level and modulus size should be carefully chosen to ensure a balance between security and efficiency.

Expert Consultation: Due to the complexity of Homomorphic Encryption, consultation with experts in the field of cryptography is often advisable for a proper and secure implementation.

Regular Audits: Given the rapid advancements in the field, regular security audits are essential to make sure the encryption measures are up-to-date and resistant to new types of vulnerabilities.

Recent Research

The proliferation of Homomorphic Encryption is not merely a theoretical advance but a catalyst for revolutionary changes in the field of machine learning and beyond. It’s steering a new wave of research focused on privacy-preserving methodologies.

Key Contributions in Neural Networks

The paper “CryptoNets: Applying Neural Networks to Encrypted Data with High Throughput and Accuracy,” [1] serves as a seminal work in this domain. It looks into the intricate processes by which neural networks can be trained and deployed directly on the ciphertext. By leveraging specific architectures and optimization techniques, the study demonstrates that it’s possible to achieve both high throughput and accuracy, resolving some of the traditional trade-offs associated with Homomorphic Encryption. The study also employs a series of sophisticated mathematical transformations, such as activation function approximations, to make neural networks compatible with the algebraic structures utilized in Homomorphic Encryption.

Advancements in Cloud-Based Applications

Another key contribution to the field is the paper titled “Application of Homomorphic Encryption in Machine Learning,” [2] which focuses on cloud-based machine learning services. Here, the emphasis is on preserving user privacy when offloading computations to a third-party cloud provider. The paper presents novel algorithms and protocols that leverage Homomorphic Encryption to enable privacy-preserving training and inference in a cloud environment, without sacrificing the quality of the machine learning model.

Specialized Domains: Healthcare Data

The domain-specific applications are equally compelling. The paper “A privacy-preserving federated learning scheme with homomorphic encryption for healthcare data” [3] is particularly noteworthy. It addresses the challenge of securely aggregating and analyzing medical data across various healthcare providers while fully maintaining patient confidentiality. The scheme allows the development of machine learning models that can learn from the entire dataset without ever exposing individual records, a major breakthrough in the realm of secure, federated learning.

Breaking Boundaries in Deep Learning

Further pushing the envelope is research like “A symbolic execution compiler for privacy-preserving Deep Learning with Homomorphic Encryption.” [4] This study focuses on leveraging symbolic computation methods to enhance the scalability and performance of deep learning models trained on encrypted data. It introduces a novel compiler that translates deep learning computations into a format that can be efficiently executed under Homomorphic Encryption, thus widening the applicability of HE in complex machine learning architectures.

The widespread adoption and application of Homomorphic Encryption in recent research signify its rapidly growing influence.


Homomorphic Encryption has transitioned from being a mathematical curiosity to an increasingly practical solution for securing data in machine learning workflows. Its complex nature notwithstanding, the unparalleled privacy and security benefits it offers are compelling enough to warrant its growing adoption. As machine learning integrates increasingly with sensitive sectors like healthcare, finance, and defence, the imperative for employing encryption techniques that are both potent and efficient becomes critical.

Proactive adoption of transformative encryption approaches such as Homomorphic Encryption serves a dual purpose: it reinforces ethical imperatives around data privacy and propels the machine learning discipline into new territories, ones where data sensitivity has traditionally been a hindrance. Future directions in machine learning are inextricably tied to advancements in data security. Homomorphic Encryption, with its capacity to enable computations on encrypted data without compromising privacy, is poised to play a key role in shaping this future.


  1. Gilad-Bachrach, R., Dowlin, N., Laine, K., Lauter, K., Naehrig, M., & Wernsing, J. (2016, June). Cryptonets: Applying neural networks to encrypted data with high throughput and accuracy. In International conference on machine learning (pp. 201-210). PMLR.
  2. Ameur, Y., Bouzefrane, S., & Audigier, V. (2022). Application of homomorphic encryption in machine learning. In Emerging Trends in Cybersecurity Applications (pp. 391-410). Cham: Springer International Publishing.
  3. Wang, B., Li, H., Guo, Y., & Wang, J. (2023). PPFLHE: A privacy-preserving federated learning scheme with homomorphic encryption for healthcare data. Applied Soft Computing, 110677.
  4. Cabrero-Holgueras, J., & Pastrana, S. (2023). HEFactory: A symbolic execution compiler for privacy-preserving Deep Learning with Homomorphic Encryption. SoftwareX22, 101396.

For 30+ years, I've been committed to protecting people, businesses, and the environment from the physical harm caused by cyber-kinetic threats, blending cybersecurity strategies and resilience and safety measures. Lately, my worries have grown due to the rapid, complex advancements in Artificial Intelligence (AI). Having observed AI's progression for two decades and penned a book on its future, I see it as a unique and escalating threat, especially when applied to military systems, disinformation, or integrated into critical infrastructure like 5G networks or smart grids. More about me.

Luka Ivezic
Luka Ivezic

Luka Ivezic is the Lead Cybersecurity Consultant for Europe at the Information Security Forum (ISF), a leading global, independent, and not-for-profit organisation dedicated to cybersecurity and risk management. Before joining ISF, Luka served as a cybersecurity consultant and manager at PwC and Deloitte. His journey in the field began as an independent researcher focused on cyber and geopolitical implications of emerging technologies such as AI, IoT, 5G. He co-authored with Marin the book "The Future of Leadership in the Age of AI". Luka holds a Master's degree from King's College London's Department of War Studies, where he specialized in the disinformation risks posed by AI.

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