Differential Privacy in Practice: Expose your Epsilons!

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Cynthia Dwork
Nitin Kohli
Deirdre Mulligan


Differential privacy is at a turning point. Implementations have been successfully leveraged in private industry, the public sector, and academia in a wide variety of applications, allowing scientists, engineers, and researchers the ability to learn about populations of interest without specifically learning about these individuals. Because differential privacy allows us to quantify cumulative privacy loss, these differentially private systems will, for the first time, allow us to measure and compare the total privacy loss due to these personal data-intensive activities. Appropriately leveraged, this could be a watershed moment for privacy.

Like other technologies and techniques that allow for a range of instantiations, implementation details matter. When meaningfully implemented, differential privacy supports deep data-driven insights with minimal worst-case privacy loss. When not meaningfully implemented, differential privacy delivers privacy mostly in name. Using differential privacy to maximize learning while providing a meaningful degree of privacy requires judicious choices with respect to the privacy parameter epsilon, among other factors. However, there is little understanding of what is the optimal value of epsilon for a given system or classes of systems/purposes/data etc. or how to go about figuring it out.

To understand current differential privacy implementations and how organizations make these key choices in practice, we conducted interviews with practitioners to learn from their experiences of implementing differential privacy. We found no clear consensus on how to choose epsilon, nor is there agreement on how to approach this and other key implementation decisions. Given the importance of these implementation details there is a need for shared learning amongst the differential privacy community. To serve these purposes, we propose the creation of the Epsilon Registry—a publicly available communal body of knowledge about differential privacy implementations that can be used by various stakeholders to drive the identification and adoption of judicious differentially private implementations.

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How to Cite
Dwork, Cynthia, Nitin Kohli, and Deirdre Mulligan. 2019. “Differential Privacy in Practice: Expose Your Epsilons!”. Journal of Privacy and Confidentiality 9 (2). https://doi.org/10.29012/jpc.689.