Cryptography & Chemical Structure Search

Encryption of chemical information has not been a very common topic in cheminformatics. There was an ACS symposium in 2005 (summary) that had a number of presentations on the topic of “safe exchange” of chemical information – i.e., exchanging information on chemical structures without sharing the structures themselves. The common thread running through many presentations was to identify representations (a.k.a, descriptors) that can be used for useful computation (e.g., regression or classification models or similarity searches) but do not allow one to (easily) regenerate the structure. Examples include the use of PASS descriptors and various topological indices. Non-descriptor based approaches included, surrogate data (that is structures of related molecules with similar properties) and most recently, scaffold networks. Also, Masek et al, JCIM, 2008 described a procedure to assess the risk of revealing structure information given a set of descriptors.

As indicated by Tetko et al, descriptor based approaches are liable to dictionary based attacks. Theoretically if one fully enumerates all possible molecules and computes the descriptors it would be trivial to obtain the structure of an obfuscated molecule. While this is not currently practical, Masek et al have already shown that an evolutionary algorithm can reconstruct the exact (or closely related) structure from BCUT descriptors in a reasonable time frame and Wong & Burkowski, JCheminf, 2009 described a kernel approach to generating structures from a set of descriptors (though they were considering the inverse QSAR problem rather than chemical privacy). Uptil now I wasn’t aware of approaches that were truly one way – impossible to regenerate the structure from the descriptors, yet also perform useful computations.

Which brings me to an interesting paper by Shimuzu et al which describes a cryptographic approach to chemical structure search, based on homomorphic encryption. A homomorphic encryption scheme allows one to perform computations on the encrypted (usually based on PKI) input leading to an encrypted result, which when decrypted gives the same result as if one had performed the computation on the clear (i.e., unecnrypted) input. Now, a “computation” can involve a variety of operations – addition, multiplication etc. Till recently, most homomorphic schemes were restricted to one or a few operations (and so are termed partially homomorphic). It was only in 2009 that a practical proposal for a fully homomorphic (i.e., supporting arbitrary computations) cryptosystem was described. See this excellent blog post for more details on homomorphic cryptosystems.

The work by Shimuzu et al addresses the specific case of a user trying to identify molecules from a database that are similar to a query structure. They consider a simplified situation where the user is only interested in the count of molecules above a similarity threshold. Two constraints are:

  1. Ensure that the database does not know the actual query structure
  2. The user should not gain information about the database contents (except for number of similar molecules)

Their scheme is based on a additive homomorphic system (i.e., the only operation supported on the encrypted data is addition) and employs binary fingerprints and the Tversky similarity metric (which can be reduced to Tanimoto if required). I note that they used 166-bit MACCS keys. Since it’s small and each bit position is known it seems that some information could leak out of the encrypted fingerprint or be subject to a dictionary attack. I’d have expected that using a larger hashed fingerprint would have helped improve the security. (Though I suspect that the encryption of the query fingerprint alleviates this issue). Another interesting feature, designed to prevent information about the database leaking back to the user is the use of “dummies” – random, encrypted (by the users public key) integers that are mixed with the true (encrypted) query result. Their design allows the user to determine the sign of the query result (which indicates whether the database molecule is similar to the query, above the specified threshold), but does not let them get the actual similarity score. They show that as the number of dummies is increased, the chances of database information leaking out tends towards zero.

Of course, one could argue that the limited usage of proprietary chemical information (in terms of people who have it and people who can make use of it) means that the efforts put in to obfuscation, cryptography etc. could simply be replaced by legal contracts. Certainly, a simple way to address the scenario discussed here (and noted by the authors) is to download the remote database locally. of course this is not feasible if the remote database is meant to stay private (e.g., a competitors structure database).

But nonetheless, methods that rigorously guarantee privacy of chemical information are interesting from an algorithmic standpoint. Even though Shimuzu et al described a very simplistic situation (though the more realistic scenario where the similar database molecules are returned would obviously negate constraint 2 above), it looks like a step forward in terms of applying formal cryptanalysis to chemical problems and supporting truly safe exchange of chemical information.

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