Background: Genomic data is increasingly collected by a wide array of organizations. As such, there is a growing demand to make summary information about such collections available more widely. However, over the past decade, a series of investigations have shown that attacks, rooted in statistical inference methods, can be applied to discern the presence of a known individual's DNA sequence in the pool of subjects. Recently, it was shown that the Beacon Project of the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health, a web service for querying about the presence (or absence) of a specific allele, was vulnerable. The Integrating Data for Analysis, Anonymization, and Sharing (iDASH) Center modeled a track in their third Privacy Protection Challenge on how to mitigate the Beacon vulnerability. We developed the winning solution for this track.
Methods: This paper describes our computational method to optimize the tradeoff between the utility and the privacy of the Beacon service. We generalize the genomic data sharing problem beyond that which was introduced in the iDASH Challenge to be more representative of real world scenarios to allow for a more comprehensive evaluation. We then conduct a sensitivity analysis of our method with respect to several state-of-the-art methods using a dataset of 400,000 positions in Chromosome 10 for 500 individuals from Phase 3 of the 1000 Genomes Project. All methods are evaluated for utility, privacy and efficiency.
Results: Our method achieves better performance than all state-of-the-art methods, irrespective of how key factors (e.g., the allele frequency in the population, the size of the pool and utility weights) change from the original parameters of the problem. We further illustrate that it is possible for our method to exhibit subpar performance under special cases of allele query sequences. However, we show our method can be extended to address this issue when the query sequence is fixed and known a priori to the data custodian, so that they may plan stage their responses accordingly.
Conclusions: This research shows that it is possible to thwart the attack on Beacon services, without substantially altering the utility of the system, using computational methods. The method we initially developed is limited by the design of the scenario and evaluation protocol for the iDASH Challenge; however, it can be improved by allowing the data custodian to act in a staged manner.
Keywords: Beacon service; Data sharing; Genomic databases; Perturbation; Privacy; iDASH challenge.