Synthetic Data – Anonymisation Groundhog Day


Theresa Stadler, EPFL; Bristena Oprisanu, UCL; Carmela Troncoso, EPFL


Synthetic data has been advertised as a silver-bullet solution to privacy-preserving data publishing that addresses the shortcomings of traditional anonymisation techniques. The promise is that synthetic data drawn from generative models preserves the statistical properties of the original dataset but, at the same time, provides perfect protection against privacy attacks. In this work, we present the first quantitative evaluation of the privacy gain of synthetic data publishing and compare it to that of previous anonymisation techniques.

Our evaluation of a wide range of state-of-the-art generative models demonstrates that synthetic data either does not prevent inference attacks or does not retain data utility. In other words, we empirically show that synthetic data does not provide a better tradeoff between privacy and utility than traditional anonymisation techniques. Furthermore, in contrast to traditional anonymisation, the privacy-utility tradeoff of synthetic data publishing is hard to predict. Because it is impossible to predict what signals a synthetic dataset will preserve and what information will be lost, synthetic data leads to a highly variable privacy gain and unpredictable utility loss. In summary, we find that synthetic data is far from the holy grail of privacy-preserving data publishing.

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@inproceedings {277172,
author = {Theresa Stadler and Bristena Oprisanu and Carmela Troncoso},
title = {Synthetic Data {\textendash} Anonymisation Groundhog Day},
booktitle = {31st USENIX Security Symposium (USENIX Security 22)},
year = {2022},
isbn = {978-1-939133-31-1},
address = {Boston, MA},
pages = {1451--1468},
url = {},
publisher = {USENIX Association},
month = aug,