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

Citation:

danah boyd and Jayshree Sarathy. 2022. “Differential Perspectives: Epistemic Disconnects Surrounding the US Census Bureau’s Use of Differential Privacy.” To appear in the Harvard Data Science Review (HDSR). Publisher's Version
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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.’