To warn or not to warn: Online signaling in audit games

Chao Yan, Haifeng Xu, Yevgeniy Vorobeychik, Bo Li, Daniel Fabbri, Bradley A. Malin

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


Routine operational use of sensitive data is often governed by law and regulation. For instance, in the medical domain, there are various statues at the state and federal level that dictate who is permitted to work with patients' records and under what conditions. To screen for potential privacy breaches, logging systems are usually deployed to trigger alerts whenever a suspicious access is detected. However, such mechanisms are often inefficient because 1) the vast majority of triggered alerts are false positives, 2) small budgets make it unlikely that a real attack will be detected, and 3) attackers can behave strategically, such that traditional auditing mechanisms cannot easily catch them. To improve efficiency, information systems may invoke signaling, so that whenever a suspicious access request occurs, the system can, in real time, warn the user that the access may be audited. Then, at the close of a finite period, a selected subset of suspicious accesses are audited. This gives rise to an online problem in which one needs to determine 1) whether a warning should be triggered and 2) the likelihood that the data request event will be audited. In this paper, we formalize this auditing problem as a Signaling Audit Game (SAG), in which we model the interactions between an auditor and an attacker in the context of signaling and the usability cost is represented as a factor of the auditor's payoff. We study the properties of its Stackelberg equilibria and develop a scalable approach to compute its solution. We show that a strategic presentation of warnings adds value in that SAGs realize significantly higher utility for the auditor than systems without signaling. We perform a series of experiments with 10 million real access events, containing over 26K alerts, from a large academic medical center to illustrate the value of the proposed auditing model and the consistency of its advantages over existing baseline methods.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationProceedings - 2020 IEEE 36th International Conference on Data Engineering, ICDE 2020
PublisherIEEE Computer Society
Number of pages12
ISBN (Electronic)9781728129037
StatePublished - Apr 2020
Event36th IEEE International Conference on Data Engineering, ICDE 2020 - Dallas, United States
Duration: Apr 20 2020Apr 24 2020

Publication series

NameProceedings - International Conference on Data Engineering
ISSN (Print)1084-4627


Conference36th IEEE International Conference on Data Engineering, ICDE 2020
Country/TerritoryUnited States


  • Database auditing
  • Privacy
  • Signaling
  • Stackel-burg game

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Software
  • Signal Processing
  • Information Systems


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