Differential Perspectives: Epistemic Disconnects Surrounding the US Census Bureau’s Use of Differential Privacy

Harvard Data Science Review (Forthcoming)

48 Pages Posted: 20 Apr 2022 Last revised: 22 Apr 2022

See all articles by Danah Boyd

Danah Boyd

Microsoft Research; Georgetown University; Data & Society Research Institute

Jayshree Sarathy

Harvard University

Date Written: March 15, 2022

Abstract

When the U.S. Census Bureau announced its intention to modernize its disclosure avoidance procedures for the 2020 Census, it sparked a controversy that is still underway. The move to differential privacy introduced technical and procedural uncertainties, leaving stakeholders unable to evaluate the quality of the data. More importantly, this transformation exposed the statistical illusions and limitations of census data, weakening stakeholders’ trust in the data and in the Census Bureau itself. This essay examines the epistemic currents of this controversy. Drawing on theories from Science and Technology Studies (STS) and ethnographic fieldwork, we analyze the current controversy over differential privacy as a battle over uncertainty, trust, and legitimacy of the Census. We argue that rebuilding trust will require more than technical repairs or improved communication; it will require reconstructing what we identify as a ‘statistical imaginary.’

Keywords: epistemology, science & technology studies, differential privacy, census

Suggested Citation

Boyd, Danah and Sarathy, Jayshree, Differential Perspectives: Epistemic Disconnects Surrounding the US Census Bureau’s Use of Differential Privacy (March 15, 2022). Harvard Data Science Review (Forthcoming) , Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4077426

Danah Boyd

Microsoft Research ( email )

One Memorial Drive, 12th Floor
Cambridge, MA 02142
United States

HOME PAGE: http://research.microsoft.com/

Georgetown University ( email )

3520 Prospect St NW
Suite 311
Washington, DC 20057
United States

Data & Society Research Institute ( email )

36 West 20th Street
11th Floor
New York,, NY 10011
United States

HOME PAGE: http://www.datasociety.net

Jayshree Sarathy (Contact Author)

Harvard University

1875 Cambridge Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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