Left: Senator Joseph McCarthy. Right: The band, Kajagoogoo.
I’ve attempted to condense our several hours of discussion into a series of blog posts.
We began our discussion with the question: What does a privacy guarantee mean to you?
There was a range of answers to this question. They all boiled down to one of the following two:
- Nothing bad will come of this information I give you: It won’t be used against me (discrimination, fraud investigations, psychological warfare). It won’t be used to harass me (spam).
- The absence or presence of a single record cannot be discerned.
Let’s just say definition 1 is the “layperson” definition, which is more focused on the consequences of giving up personal data.
And definition 2 is the “technologist'” definition, which is more focused on the mechanism behind how to actually fulfill the layperson’s guarantee in a meaningful, calculable way.
Q. What does PINQ guarantee?
Some context: PINQ is a layer of code that sits between data and anyone trying to ask questions of that data that guarantees privacy in a measurable way to the individuals represented in the data.
The privacy PINQ guarantees is broader than the layperson’s understanding of privacy. Not only does PINQ guard against re-identification, targeting, and in short, any kind of harm resulting from exposing your data, it prevents any and all things in the universe from changing as a direct result of your individual data contribution.
Sounds like cosmic wizardry. Not really, it’s simply a clever bit of armchair thinking.
If you want to guarantee that nothing in the world will change as a result of someone contributing their data to a data set, then you simply need to make sure that no one asking questions of that data set will get answers that are discernibly affected by the presence or absence of any one person.
Therefore, if you define privacy guarantee as “the absence or presence of a single record cannot be discerned,” meaning the inclusion of your data in a data set will have no discernible impact on the answers people get out of that data set, you also end up guaranteeing that nothing bad can ever happen to you if you contribute your data because in fact, absolutely nothing (good or bad) will happen to anyone as a direct result of you contributing your data, because with PINQ as the gatekeeper, your particular data record might as well not be there!
What is the practical fallout of such a guarantee?
Not only will you not be targeted to receive SPAM as a result of contributing your data to a dataset, no one else will be targeted to receive SPAM as a result of you contributing your data to a data set.
Not only will you not be discriminated against by future employers or insurance companies as a result of contributing your data to a dataset, no one else will be discriminated against as a result of contributing your data to a dataset.
Does this mean that my data doesn’t matter? Why then would I bother to contribute?
Now is a good time to point out that PINQ’s privacy guarantee is expansive, but in a very specific way. Nothing in the universe will change as a result of any one person’s data. However, the aggregate effect of everyone’s data will absolutely make a difference. It’s the same logic behind avoiding life’s little vices like telling white lies, littering or chewing gum in class. One person littering isn’t such a big deal. But what if everyone littered?
Still, is such an expansive privacy guarantee necessary?
It turns out, it’s incredibly hard to narrow a privacy guarantee to prevent just “harm,” because harm is a subjective concept with cultural and social overtones. One person’s spam is another’s helpful notification.
All privacy guarantees today which largely focus on preventing harm are by and large based on “good intentions” and “theoretical best practices,” not technical mechanisms that are measurable and “provable.”
However, change, as a function of how much any one person’s data is discernibly affecting answers to questions asked of a data set is readily measurable.
Up to this point, we’ve been engaged in a simple thought experiment that requires nothing more than a few turns of logic. How exactly PINQ keeps track of whether the absence or presence of a single record is discernible in the answers it gives out and the extent to which it’s discernible is a different matter and requires actual “innovation” and “technology.” Stay tuned for more on that.