Privacy and Synthetic Datasets

Paper by Steven M. Bellovin, Preetam K. Dutta and Nathan Reitinger: “Sharing is a virtue, instilled in us from childhood. Unfortunately, when it comes to big data — i.e., databases possessing the potential to usher in a whole new world of scientific progress — the legal landscape prefers a hoggish motif. The historic approach to the resulting database–privacy problem has been anonymization, a subtractive technique incurring not only poor privacy results, but also lackluster utility. In anonymization’s stead, differential privacy arose; it provides better, near-perfect privacy, but is nonetheless subtractive in terms of utility.

Today, another solution is leaning into the fore, synthetic data. Using the magic of machine learning, synthetic data offers a generative, additive approach — the creation of almost-but-not-quite replica data. In fact, as we recommend, synthetic data may be combined with differential privacy to achieve a best-of-both-worlds scenario. After unpacking the technical nuances of synthetic data, we analyze its legal implications, finding both over and under inclusive applications. Privacy statutes either overweigh or downplay the potential for synthetic data to leak secrets, inviting ambiguity. We conclude by finding that synthetic data is a valid, privacy-conscious alternative to raw data, but is not a cure-all for every situation. In the end, computer science progress must be met with proper policy in order to move the area of useful data dissemination forward….(More)”.