Large Language Models Can Be Strong Differentially Private Learners

Xuechen Li · Florian Tramer · Percy Liang · Tatsunori Hashimoto

Keywords: [ Fine-tuning ] [ differential privacy ] [ language model ] [ nlp ] [ language generation ]


Differentially Private (DP) learning has seen limited success for building large deep learning models of text, and straightforward attempts at applying Differentially Private Stochastic Gradient Descent (DP-SGD) to NLP tasks have resulted in large performance drops and high computational overhead.We show that this performance drop can be mitigated with (1) the use of large pretrained language models; (2) non-standard hyperparameters that suit DP optimization; and (3) fine-tuning objectives which are aligned with the pretraining procedure.With the above, we obtain NLP models that outperform state-of-the-art DP-trained models under the same privacy budget and strong non-private baselines---by directly fine-tuning pretrained models with DP optimization on moderately-sized corpora. To address the computational challenge of running DP-SGD with large Transformers, we propose a memory saving technique that allows clipping in DP-SGD to run without instantiating per-example gradients for any linear layer in the model. The technique enables privately training Transformers with almost the same memory cost as non-private training at a modest run-time overhead. Contrary to conventional wisdom that DP optimization fails at learning high-dimensional models (due to noise that scales with dimension) empirical results reveal that private learning with pretrained language models tends to not suffer from dimension-dependent performance degradation.Code to reproduce results can be found at

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