Sharing data without letting it go

Sharing data

Suppose two companies would like to share data, but they’d also each like to retain ownership of their own data. They’d like to enable querying as if each company had given the other all its data, without actually letting go of its data.

Maybe the two companies are competitors who want to collaborate for a particular project. Or maybe the companies each have data that they are not legally allowed to share with the other. Maybe one company is interested in buying (the data of) the other and would like to have some sort of preview of what they may be buying.

Differential privacy makes this possible, and can be useful even if privacy is not an issue. The two companies have data on inanimate widgets, not persons, and yet they have privacy-like concerns. They don’t want to hand over row-level data about their widgets, and yet they both want to be able to pose questions about the combined widget data. The situation is analogous to being concerned about the “privacy” of the widgets.

Both companies would deposit data with a trusted third party, and gain access to this data via an API that implements differential privacy. Such APIs let users pose queries but do not allow either side to request row-level data.

How is this possible? What if one party poses a query that unexpectedly turns out to be asking for row-level data? For example, maybe someone asks for the average net worth of customers in Alaska, assuming there are hundreds of such customers, but the data only contains one customer in Alaska. What was intended to be an aggregate query turns out to be a row-level query.

Differential privacy handles this sort of thing automatically. It adds an amount of random noise to each query in proportion to how sensitive the query is. If you ask for what amounts to data about an individual person (or individual widget) the system will add enough noise to the result to prevent revealing row-level information. (The system may also refuse to answer the query; this is done more often in practice than in theory.) But if you ask a question that reveals very little information about a single database row, the amount of noise added will be negligible.

The degree of collaboration can be limited up front by setting a privacy budget for each company. (Again, we may not necessarily be talking about the privacy of people. We may be looking at analogous protections on units of information about physical things, such as results of destructive testing of expensive hardware.)

Someone could estimate at the start of the collaboration how large the privacy budget would need to be to allow both companies to satisfy their objectives without being so large as to risk giving away intellectual property that the parties do not wish to exchange. This budget would be spent over the course of the project. When the parties exhaust their privacy budgets, they can discuss whether to allow each other more query budget.

This arrangement allows both parties the ability to ask questions of the combined data as if they had exchanged data. However, neither party has given up control of its data. They have given each other some level of information inferred from the combined data, but neither gives a single row of data to the other.

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2 thoughts on “Sharing data without letting it go

  1. I’m dying to know: What’s the unit for the privacy budget? Can you use “bits”, or other entropy related units, for all the data? Or is the units of the underlying data, and you need to set limits on a per-table level?

  2. Expenses charged against a privacy budget are logarithms of probability ratios, so they are dimensionless.

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