Model Sparsity Can Simplify Machine Unlearning

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 36 (NeurIPS 2023) Main Conference Track

Bibtex Paper Supplemental


Jinghan Jia, Jiancheng Liu, Parikshit Ram, Yuguang Yao, Gaowen Liu, Yang Liu, PRANAY SHARMA, Sijia Liu


In response to recent data regulation requirements, machine unlearning (MU) has emerged as a critical process to remove the influence of specific examples from a given model. Although exact unlearning can be achieved through complete model retraining using the remaining dataset, the associated computational costs have driven the development of efficient, approximate unlearning techniques. Moving beyond data-centric MU approaches, our study introduces a novel model-based perspective: model sparsification via weight pruning, which is capable of reducing the gap between exact unlearning and approximate unlearning. We show in both theory and practice that model sparsity can boost the multi-criteria unlearning performance of an approximate unlearner, closing the approximation gap, while continuing to be efficient. This leads to a new MU paradigm, termed prune first, then unlearn, which infuses a sparse prior to the unlearning process. Building on this insight, we also develop a sparsity-aware unlearning method that utilizes sparsity regularization to enhance the training process of approximate unlearning. Extensive experiments show that our proposals consistently benefit MU in various unlearning scenarios. A notable highlight is the 77% unlearning efficacy gain of fine-tuning (one of the simplest approximate unlearning methods) when using our proposed sparsity-aware unlearning method. Furthermore, we showcase the practical impact of our proposed MU methods through two specific use cases: defending against backdoor attacks, and enhancing transfer learning through source class removal. These applications demonstrate the versatility and effectiveness of our approaches in addressing a variety of machine learning challenges beyond unlearning for data privacy. Codes are available at