Bridging Privacy Definitions

This working group - composed of privacy experts across disciplines - explores the range of privacy-related definitions from law, computer science, and social science, covering topics such as measures of informational harm, de-identification techniques, formal privacy models such as differential privacy, and privacy standards from laws such as FERPA and HIPAA. The group explores the nature of these definitions, the relationships and gaps between them, and potential methods of bridging the disciplinary divide.

A recent product from this working group is a methodology for extracting a mathematical model from a legal standard such as FERPA. This product can be used to demonstrate that a privacy technology satisfies any given legal standard.

For the 2016-2017 year, we plan to focus on questions related to the broad conceptualization of informational harms, including group harms like discrimination and their relationship to the types of harms addressed by formal privacy definitions like differential privacy. We are also looking to develop methods for setting formal privacy parameters (like the differential privacy parameter epsilon) based on accepted legal, ethical, and social notions.

We are excited to hear from anyone seeking to explore multidisciplinary approaches to privacy. For more information and to join our mailing list, please contact Gabriella Fee at



Salil Vadhan

Salil Vadhan

Vicky Joseph Professor of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics, SEAS, Harvard
Area Chair for Computer Science

Salil Vadhan is the lead PI of Privacy Tools for Sharing Research Data project and the Vicky Joseph Professor of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics...

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Salome Viljoen

Research Fellow, Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, Harvard

Michel Reymond

Postdoctoral Researcher and Teaching Assistant at the University of Geneva, Switzerland
Visiting Researcher at the Berkman Center
Legal Intern at Byrne-Sutton, Bollen, Kern
Aaron Bembenek

Aaron Bembenek

Graduate researcher (summer 2015), Special Student affiliated with the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Harvard University
Graduate researcher (fall 2015)

Aaron Bembenek is a graduate researcher in programming languages with Steve Chong. He joined as a summer 2015 intern, and continued his work into the...

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Policy Commentary

2018 Submitted Comments
  • On March 13, 2018, members of the Privacy Tools team submitted comments to the Chief Statistician of the United States and the Statistical and Science Policy Branch in the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. In response to a request for information, the comments focus on privacy or confidentiality issues that arise when combining data from multiple sources in the course of federal statistical activities. See PDF here.
2017 Submitted Comments
2016 Submitted Comments
  • Members of the project team (PI Salil Vadhan, Co-PI Edo Airoldi, Co-PI Urs Gasser, Co-Investigator Micah Altman, Research Fellow Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye, Sr. Researcher David R. O'Brien, and Research Fellow Alexandra Wood) submitted comments on the Proposed Rules to Revise the Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects ("Common Rule"), HHS-OPHS-2015-0008 (January 6, 2016). This commentary is available at;D=HHS-OPHS-2015-0008-2015 
  • On May 23, 2016, Micah Altman provided testimony and written comments in a Hearing on “De-Identification and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)" before the Subcommittee on Privacy, Confidentiality & Security, National Committee on Vital and Health Statistics:
2014 Submitted Comments
2013 Submitted Comments
  • M. Altman, M. Crosas, et al.,on behalf on DataPASS, “Response to the National Institute of Health Request Information: Input on Development of NIH Data Catalog". 2013.  PDF version of comments