Towards an End-to-End Approach to Formal Privacy for Sample Surveys

This cooperative agreement, awarded to Boston University & Harvard University, will help develop methods for providing formal privacy guarantees for data collected through complex sample surveys. This includes improving understanding of how common survey practices such as stratification and weighting adjustments interact with privacy guarantees, as well as understanding how to adjust current privacy methods to support inherently smaller sample sizes.

The increasing public availability of large, detailed databases on individuals, combined with the ability to process large amounts of data in cloud and cluster-based systems, has put survey respondents at increasing risk of re-identification. This project will seek to develop formal privacy methods that protect sample survey respondents, expanding the protections the Census Bureau is planning to provide to 2020 Census respondents to a broader set of products that serve as sources of information for numerous sensitive yet important social and economic characteristics.

Principal investigators Marco Gaboardi (Boston), Jörg Drechsler (Maryland), Kobbi Nissim (Georgetown) and Salil Vadhan (Harvard) have made numerous contributions to the field of data privacy, including the theory and practice of differential privacy and related privacy definitions, and the application and analysis of data protected using statistical methods such as multiple imputation. Nissim is one of the co-inventors of differential privacy. Their research includes assessment of the legal ramifications of differential privacy, the interaction of differential privacy with statistical analysis such as regression, improvements to differentially private algorithms by methods such as smooth sensitivity and sampling amplification, and contributions to privacy projects such as the Harvard Privacy Tools Project and OpenDP.

Co-principal investigator Cynthia Dwork is the Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science at the Harvard Paulson School of Engineering and has received numerous awards, including the Dijkstra and Knuth Prizes, for her work in computer science, and is a co-inventor of differential privacy. Co-principal investigator Mark Bun is an assistant professor at Boston University. Co-principal investigator Frauke Kreuter is the director of the Joint Program in Survey Methodology at the University of Maryland. Co-principal investigator Adam Smith is a professor of computer science at Boston University and one of the co-inventors of differential privacy.

Their work in collaboration with the Census Bureau will help pave the way for provable privacy guarantees for survey respondents, not just for Census Bureau surveys, but also for surveys across the federal statistical system and beyond.

This project is a cooperative agreement from the US Bureau of the Census.