Differential Privacy: A Primer for a Non-Technical Audience
69 Pages Posted: 25 Mar 2019
Date Written: 2018
Differential privacy is a formal mathematical framework for quantifying and managing privacy risks. It provides provable privacy protection against a wide range of potential attacks, including those currently unforeseen. Differential privacy is primarily studied in the context of the collection, analysis, and release of aggregate statistics. These range from simple statistical estimations, such as averages, to machine learning. Tools for differentially private analysis are now in early stages of implementation and use across a variety of academic, industry, and government settings. Interest in the concept is growing among potential users of the tools, as well as within legal and policy communities, as it holds promise as a potential approach to satisfying legal requirements for privacy protection when handling personal information. In particular, differential privacy may be seen as a technical solution for analyzing and sharing data while protecting the privacy of individuals in accordance with existing legal or policy requirements for de-identification or disclosure limitation.
This primer seeks to introduce the concept of differential privacy and its privacy implications to non-technical audiences. It provides a simplified and informal, but mathematically accurate, description of differential privacy. Using intuitive illustrations and limited mathematical formalism, it discusses the definition of differential privacy, how differential privacy addresses privacy risks, how differentially private analyses are constructed, and how such analyses can be used in practice. A series of illustrations is used to show how practitioners and policymakers can conceptualize the guarantees provided by differential privacy. These illustrations are also used to explain related concepts, such as composition (the accumulation of risk across multiple analyses), privacy loss parameters, and privacy budgets. This primer aims to provide a foundation that can guide future decisions when analyzing and sharing statistical data about individuals, informing individuals about the privacy protection they will be afforded, and designing policies and regulations for robust privacy protection.
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