An exercise in careful misreading

A recent article was passed along to me:

Jane Bambauer, Krishnamurty Muralidhar, and Rathindra Sarathy
Fool’s Gold: An Illustrated Critique of Differential Privacy
Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and Technology Law 16(4):701-755.

The article is aimed at the legal community, which has seen in differential privacy a potential technological solution for data privacy issues. The goal of the article is to throw some cold water on some law scholars’ embrace of differential privacy as a solution concept. I’m not a one-method-fixes-all kind of person, but this article is sort of relentlessly negative about differential privacy based solely on a single mechanism: output perturbation. The authors appear to be laboring under the impression that this is really the only way to provide differential privacy, “an assumption that contorts the rest of [their] analysis,” the charge that they level at one proponent of differential privacy.

In the example with which they open the paper, they claim that “even knowing the distribution of noise that is randomly added to each cell, the internist has no hope of interpreting the response. The true values could be almost anything.” While technically true, it’s quite misleading. Indeed, by knowing the distribution, one can create bounds on the accuracy of the answer — this is, contra the authors’ claims, the “tension between utility and privacy” that differential privacy researchers do “toil” with. They manage to explain the statistics fairly reasonably in the middle of the paper but ignore that in the introduction and conclusion in favor of some ascerbic bons mots. Now, perhaps to them, privacy should be an almost-sure guarantee. There is a critique in that: differential privacy can only make probabilistic guarantees, and if your legal standard is stricter than that, then it’s probably not a good way to go. But the misleading rhetoric employed here is meant to stir emotions rather than sway the intellect.

The language in the article is quite florid: “Differential privacy has been rocking the computer science world for over ten years and is fast becoming a crossover hit among privacy scholars and policymakers.” I suppose this sort of prose may be what constitutes scholarly writing in law, but it lacks the measured tones that one might want in more objective criticism. Perhaps they read academic writing in science and engineering in an equally emotional register. They use some strong language to conclude “differential privacy is either not practicable or not novel.” I find such blanket statements both puzzling and vacuous. If you set up a straw-man of what differential privacy is, I suppose you can derive such dichotomies, but is that the best argument one can make?

One thing that comes out of this reading is that most people don’t really appreciate how technology progresses from academic research to practical solutions. Perhaps some legal scholars have overstated the case for differential privacy based on the state of the technology now. But whose to say how things will look a few years down the line? We’ll have better algorithms, different database structures, and different data sharing mechanisms and platforms. Perhaps differential privacy is not ready for prime time, although Google seems to disagree. The authors’ main point (hidden in the in the breathless indignation) is that it’s probably not the best solution for every data sharing problem, a statement with which I can completely agree.

In their effort to discredit differential privacy, the authors ignore both the way in which scientific and academic research works as well as contemporary work that seeks to address the very problems they raise: context-awareness via propose-test-release, methods for setting \epsilon in practical scenarios, and dealing with multiple disclosures via stronger composition rules. They further ignore real technical hurdles in realizing “pure” differential privacy in favor of “illustrations” with the goal of painting proponents of differential privacy as ideologues and hucksters. Of course context and judgement are important in designing query mechanisms and privacy-preserving analysis systems. Furthermore, in many cases microdata have to be released for legal reasons. I think few people believe that differential privacy is a panacea, but it at least provides a real quantifiable approach to thinking about these privacy problems that one can build theories and algorithms around. The key is to figure out how to make those work on real data, and there’s a lot more research to be done on that front.

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