Applying Theoretical Advances in Privacy to Computational Social Science Practice

The goal of this project is to improve replicability and reproducibility in social science by developing easy-to-use tools for researchers to share confidential research data in a privacy-protective manner, supported by rigorous computational, institutional, and legal foundations. We are motivated by the opportunities in social science created by massive new sources of data and developments in data analysis and sharing, and by the threat that privacy concerns pose to realizing the full potential of social science research. By leveraging ongoing multidisciplinary collaborations and theoretical advances in computation, statistics, law, and social science, the project aims to improve the replicability and reproducibility of data in empirical social science. Our goal is to develop and extend integrated privacy-preserving tools for enabling access to, use, and disclosure of social science data. The proposed project builds on a successful, ongoing multidisciplinary collaboration supported by an NSF Frontier grant: Privacy Tools for Sharing Research Data.

Objectives for this project include (1) analyzing the institutional and stakeholder incentives for managing research data privacy and the policy consequences of implementing new computational and legal privacy tools and concepts; (2) designing a blueprint for securing large-scale confidential archival data in the Dataverse repository; (3) exploring applications of our new computational and legal privacy tools to massive data and selected use cases, including online education data, human subjects research data, and economic data protected by NDAs; and (4) expanding research collaborations to engage with other differential privacy and privacy law experts, ongoing data privacy and dissemination efforts at MIT and Harvard, and several related Sloan Foundation projects. 

This project is supported by a grant from the Sloan Foundation. For more information, please see the original proposed project description:

cover sheet
project proposal

Principal Investigators

Salil Vadhan

Salil Vadhan

Principal Investigator
Vicky Joseph Professor of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics, SEAS, Harvard
Urs Gasser

Urs Gasser

Executive Director, Berkman Center for Internet & Society
Professor of Practice, Harvard Law School
Current Member of Datatags Team
Micah Altman

Micah Altman

Director of Research and Head/Scientist, Program on Information Science for the MIT Libraries, MIT
Non-Resident Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution
Current Member of Datatags Team
Gary King

Gary King

Albert J. Weatherhead III University Professor, Harvard
Director, IQSS, Harvard


Micah Altman, Alexandra Wood, David R. O'Brien, and Urs Gasser. 2016. “Practical Approaches to Big Data Privacy Over Time.” Brussels Privacy Symposium.Abstract

Increasingly, governments and businesses are collecting, analyzing, and sharing detailed information about individuals over long periods of time. Vast quantities of data from new sources and novel methods for large-scale data analysis promise to yield deeper understanding of human characteristics, behavior, and relationships and advance the state of science, public policy, and innovation. At the same time, the collection and use of fine-grained personal data over time is associated with significant risks to individuals, groups, and society at large. In this article, we examine a range of longterm data collections, conducted by researchers in social science, in order to identify the characteristics of these programs that drive their unique sets of risks and benefits. We also examine the practices that have been established by social scientists to protect the privacy of data subjects in light of the challenges presented in long-term studies. We argue that many uses of big data, across academic, government, and industry settings, have characteristics similar to those of traditional long-term research studies. In this article, we discuss the lessons that can be learned from longstanding data management practices in research and potentially applied in the context of newly emerging data sources and uses.

Georgios Kellaris, George Kollios, Kobbi Nissim, and Adam O'Neill. 10/2016. “Generic Attacks on Secure Outsourced Databases.” 23rd ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security.Abstract

Recently, various protocols have been proposed for securely outsourcing database storage to a third party server, ranging from systems with “full-fledged” security based on strong cryptographic primitives such as fully homomorphic encryption or oblivious RAM, to more practical implementations based on searchable symmetric encryption or even on deterministic and order-preserving encryption. On the flip side, various attacks have emerged that show that for some of these protocols confidentiality of the data can be compromised, usually given certain auxiliary information. We take a step back and identify a need for a formal understanding of the inherent efficiency/privacy trade-off in outsourced database systems, independent of the details of the system. We propose abstract models that capture secure outsourced storage systems in sufficient generality, and identify two basic sources of leakage, namely access pattern and communication volume. We use our models to distinguish certain classes of outsourced database systems that have been proposed, and deduce that all of them exhibit at least one of these leakage sources. We then develop generic reconstruction attacks on any system supporting range queries where either access pattern or communication volume is leaked. These attacks are in a rather weak passive adversarial model, where the untrusted server knows only the underlying query distribution. In particular, to perform our attack the server need not have any prior knowledge about the data, and need not know any of the issued queries nor their results. Yet, the server can reconstruct the secret attribute of every record in the database after about N 4 queries, where N is the domain size. We provide a matching lower bound showing that our attacks are essentially optimal. Our reconstruction attacks using communication volume apply even to systems based on homomorphic encryption or oblivious RAM in the natural way. Finally, we provide experimental results demonstrating the efficacy of our attacks on real datasets with a variety of different features. On all these datasets, after the required number of queries our attacks successfully recovered the secret attributes of every record in at most a few seconds.

Raef Bassily, Kobbi Nissim, Adam Smith, Thomas Steinke, Uri Stemmer, and Jonathan Ullman. 2016. “Algorithmic Stability for Adaptive Data Analysis.” 48th Annual Symposium on the Theory of Computing. arXiv VersionAbstract

Adaptivity is an important feature of data analysis---the choice of questions to ask about a dataset often depends on previous interactions with the same dataset. However, statistical validity is typically studied in a nonadaptive model, where all questions are specified before the dataset is drawn. Recent work by Dwork et al. (STOC, 2015) and Hardt and Ullman (FOCS, 2014) initiated the formal study of this problem, and gave the first upper and lower bounds on the achievable generalization error for adaptive data analysis. Specifically, suppose there is an unknown distribution P and a set of n independent samples x is drawn from P. We seek an algorithm that, given x as input, accurately answers a sequence of adaptively chosen queries about the unknown distribution P. How many samples n must we draw from the distribution, as a function of the type of queries, the number of queries, and the desired level of accuracy? In this work we make two new contributions: (i) We give upper bounds on the number of samples n that are needed to answer statistical queries. The bounds improve and simplify the work of Dwork et al. (STOC, 2015), and have been applied in subsequent work by those authors (Science, 2015, NIPS, 2015). (ii) We prove the first upper bounds on the number of samples required to answer more general families of queries. These include arbitrary low-sensitivity queries and an important class of optimization queries. As in Dwork et al., our algorithms are based on a connection with algorithmic stability in the form of differential privacy. We extend their work by giving a quantitatively optimal, more general, and simpler proof of their main theorem that stability implies low generalization error. We also study weaker stability guarantees such as bounded KL divergence and total variation distance.

Rachel Cummings, Katrina Ligett, Kobbi Nissim, Aaron Roth, and Zhiwei Steven Wu. 2016. “Adaptive Learning with Robust Generalization Guarantees.” Conference on Learning Theory (COLT). arXiv VersionAbstract

The traditional notion of generalization---i.e., learning a hypothesis whose empirical error is close to its true error---is surprisingly brittle. As has recently been noted in [DFH+15b], even if several algorithms have this guarantee in isolation, the guarantee need not hold if the algorithms are composed adaptively. In this paper, we study three notions of generalization---increasing in strength---that are robust to postprocessing and amenable to adaptive composition, and examine the relationships between them. We call the weakest such notion Robust Generalization. A second, intermediate, notion is the stability guarantee known as differential privacy. The strongest guarantee we consider we call Perfect Generalization. We prove that every hypothesis class that is PAC learnable is also PAC learnable in a robustly generalizing fashion, with almost the same sample complexity. It was previously known that differentially private algorithms satisfy robust generalization. In this paper, we show that robust generalization is a strictly weaker concept, and that there is a learning task that can be carried out subject to robust generalization guarantees, yet cannot be carried out subject to differential privacy. We also show that perfect generalization is a strictly stronger guarantee than differential privacy, but that, nevertheless, many learning tasks can be carried out subject to the guarantees of perfect generalization.

Yiling Chen, Stephen Chong, Ian Kash, Tal Moran, and Salil Vadhan. 6/2016. “Truthful Mechanisms for Agents that Value Privacy.” ACM Transactions on Economics and Computation (TEAC), 4, 3. TEAC VersionAbstract

Recent work has constructed economic mechanisms that are both truthful and differentially private. In these mechanisms, privacy is treated separately from truthfulness; it is not incorporated in players’ utility functions (and doing so has been shown to lead to nontruthfulness in some cases). In this work, we propose a new, general way of modeling privacy in players’ utility functions. Specifically, we only assume that if an outcome o has the property that any report of player i would have led to o with approximately the same probability, then o has a small privacy cost to player i. We give three mechanisms that are truthful with respect to our modeling of privacy: for an election between two candidates, for a discrete version of the facility location problem, and for a general social choice problem with discrete utilities (via a VCG-like mechanism). As the number n of players increases, the social welfare achieved by our mechanisms approaches optimal (as a fraction of n).

K. Nissim, A Bembenek, A Wood, M Bun, M Gaboardi, U. Gasser, D O'Brien, T Steinke, and S. Vadhan. 2018. “Bridging the Gap between Computer Science and Legal Approaches to Privacy Kobbi Nissim, Aaron Bembenek, Alexandra Wood, Mark Bun, Marco Gaboardi, Urs Gasser, David R. O’Brien, and Salil Vadhan, Bridging the Gap between Computer Science and Legal Appro.” In , 2nd ed., 31: Pp. 687-780. Harvard Journal of Law & Technology. Publisher's VersionAbstract
The fields of law and computer science incorporate contrasting notions of the privacy risks associated with the analysis and release of statistical data about individuals and groups of individuals. Emerging concepts from the theoretical computer science literature provide formal mathematical models for quantifying and mitigating privacy risks, where the set of risks they take into account is much broader than the privacy risks contemplated by many privacy laws. An example of such a model is differential privacy, which provides a provable guarantee of privacy against a wide range of potential attacks, including types of attacks currently unknown or unforeseen. The subject of much theoretical investigation, new privacy technologies based on formal models have recently been making significant strides towards practical implementation. For these tools to be used with sensitive personal information, it is important to demonstrate that they satisfy relevant legal requirements for privacy protection. However, making such an argument is challenging due to the conceptual gaps between the legal and technical approaches to defining privacy. Notably, information privacy laws are generally subject to interpretation and some degree of flexibility, which creates uncertainty for the implementation of more formal approaches. This Article articulates the gaps between legal and technical approaches to privacy and presents a methodology for rigorously arguing that a technological method for privacy protection satisfies the requirements of a particular law. The proposed methodology has two main components: (i) extraction of a formal mathematical requirement of privacy based on a legal standard found in an information privacy law, and (ii) construction of a rigorous mathematical proof for establishing that a technological privacy solution satisfies the mathematical requirement derived from the law. To handle ambiguities that can lead to different interpretations of a legal standard, the methodology takes a conservative “worst-case” approach and attempts to extract a mathematical requirement that is robust to potential ambiguities. Under this approach, the mathematical proof demonstrates that a technological method satisfies a broad range of reasonable interpretations of a legal standard. The Article demonstrates the application of the proposed methodology with an example bridging between the requirements of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 and differential privacy.