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How Federated Learning Addresses Data Privacy Concerns in AI

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Federated learning revolutionizes AI training by enabling collaborative learning on decentralized devices. It holds great promise in addressing data privacy concerns.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has already become very popular in fields like finance and E-commerce, as it can learn a lot from big datasets.

To make AI work well, we need ways to process data quickly and handle large amounts of it. Centralized data processing centers, also known as data centers, are often used for learning from datasets.

However, as it requires gathering data in a single place, there is a risk of compromising the privacy of sensitive information. This concern has limited the widespread use of AI in many areas, especially the healthcare sector.

To solve the problem, one promising approach is to move the tasks from big data centers to smaller devices like smartphones or other gadgets that are closer to where the data is generated. This way, we don’t have to send the data to a different location.

This new approach is commonly known as federated learning.

What is Federated Learning?

The term federated learning was coined by Google in 2016. It has become widely known shortly after as the misuse of sensitive data had become a very concerning issue after a number of scandals like Cambridge Analytica.


Federated learning, also known as collaborative learning, involves training an AI algorithm collaboratively using multiple edge devices, each with its own dataset. This is in contrast to traditional methods, where datasets are merged at a centralized location for collective training.

In federated learning, an AI model is created at a centralized place, and its access is given to the participating devices. The participants download the model from a central location and train it using their private data. The locally trained models are sent back to the central location, where they are combined to produce a single global AI model. This process is repeated serval times to produce a final AI model.

In the end, the finalized AI model is shared with all the participating devices for making predictions.

Federated Learning: Transforming Healthcare through Data Privacy

Healthcare could greatly benefit from federated learning as the industry’s institutes have large amounts of datasets that are kept isolated or “siloed” due to the sensitive nature of the data. This isolation makes it challenging to extract meaningful insights from the data.

However, with federated learning, healthcare institutions can do so while ensuring the utmost security within their own infrastructure. The combination of extracting valuable insights and safeguarding data privacy makes federated learning a game-changer for the industry.

Federated learning empowers hospitals, healthcare institutions, and research centers to collaborate on developing models that can benefit all parties.

A Real-Life Example

Let’s consider an example where different hospitals aim to create a model for automated brain tumor analysis. With a client-server federated learning approach, a centralized server maintains the global AI model (e.g. an artificial neural network), while each hospital receives a copy of it to train on their individual datasets.

This collaborative framework ensures that the hospitals can share their knowledge and expertise while still maintaining the privacy of their respective clinical data. By securely sharing model updates instead of raw data, federated learning strikes a balance between collaboration and privacy. This enables institutions to make collective progress without compromising patient confidentiality.

In addition to preserving privacy, federated learning also encourages collaboration among healthcare institutes. The institutions that may have previously operated independently can now contribute their unique datasets and insights to collectively build robust AI models.

Such a collective effort could enhance the accuracy and generalizability of the resulting models, leading to improved diagnostic capabilities, treatment plans, and patient outcomes.

Multi-layered Data Privacy in Federated Learning

The main advantage of federated learning is that organizations are no longer required to share their sensitive data outside their secured premises for the implementation of AI. By restricting data to their organizations, federated learning reduces the chances of data breaches or unauthorized access.

This is particularly vital in domains like healthcare, where maintaining the privacy of patients’ sensitive data is of utmost importance.

Instead of sharing the data, federated learning deals with sharing updates of locally trained models. To further secure this communication, it incorporates various techniques:

  • Anonymization is applied to remove personally identifiable information (PII) from the data in order to protect individual identities.
  • Encryption is used to protect data during transmission to ensure that it cannot be accessed by unauthorized parties.

Furthermore, to provide an additional layer of privacy protection, federated learning employs secure aggregation methods to combine the model updates without compromising individual privacy. As such, the differential privacy technique could also be utilized. The noise is added to the model updates in order to prevent the re-identification of specific data points.

The privacy of federated learning is often categorized into two main aspects: local privacy and global privacy.

  • Local privacy deals with protecting the privacy of local data at an individual level. This is achieved by sharing model updates rather than the data.
  • Global privacy ensures that the updates made to the model during each round are kept private and inaccessible to any untrusted third parties except the central server.

The methods like anonymization, encryption (or secure multi-party computation), differential privacy, and secure aggregation are primarily used for global privacy.

Finally, the ethical considerations are vital for the implementation of federated learning. Organizations participating in federated learning must obtain informed consent from individuals for using their data in model training.

Ethical guidelines and legal regulations are strictly followed to ensure that privacy is maintained throughout the process.

Challenges for Federated Learning

A key drawback of federated learning is that it may not scale well with large-scale AI developments. This is due to the significant communication and computing costs involved. As such, the main goal of federated learning is to offer a computationally low-cost and communication-efficient framework without compromising the performance of AI models.

Another shortcoming of federated learning is the extra computation and communication cost of incorporating the privacy mechanisms.

Finally, the privacy mechanisms – like adding noise into model updates to secure individual identities – may affect the accuracy of the models.

The Bottom Line

With the rise of AI and the implementation of data protection policies such as GDPR and CCPA, safeguarding data privacy has become crucial. Federated learning effectively addresses these concerns by training AI models on decentralized devices using local datasets, thereby ensuring data privacy.

One of its key advantages is its robust multi-layered data privacy protection mechanism. With these privacy protection mechanisms, federated learning holds great promise, particularly in domains like healthcare.


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Dr. Tehseen Zia
Tenured Associate Professor
Dr. Tehseen Zia
Tenured Associate Professor

Dr. Tehseen Zia has Doctorate and more than 10 years of post-Doctorate research experience in Artificial Intelligence (AI). He is Tenured Associate Professor and leads AI research at Comsats University Islamabad, and co-principle investigator in National Center of Artificial Intelligence Pakistan. In the past, he has worked as research consultant on European Union funded AI project Dream4cars.