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Bridging the Gap between Computer Science and Legal Approaches to Privacy


by Kobbi Nissim, Aaron Bembenek, Alexandra B. Wood, Mark Mar Bun, Marco Gaboardi, Urs Gasser, David O'Brien, Salil P. Vadhan

The analysis and release of statistical data about individuals and groups of individuals carries inherent privacy risks, and these risks have been conceptualized in different ways within the fields of law and computer science. For instance, many information privacy laws adopt notions of privacy risk that are sector- or context-specific, such as in the case of laws that protect from disclosure certain types of information contained within health, educational, or financial records. In addition, many privacy laws refer to specific techniques, such as deidentification, that are designed to address a subset of possible attacks on privacy. In doing so, many legal standards for privacy protection rely on individual organizations to make case-by-case determinations regarding concepts such as the identifiability of the types of information they hold. These regulatory approaches are intended to be flexible, allowing organizations to (1) implement a variety of specific privacy measures that are appropriate given their varying institutional policies and needs, (2) adapt to evolving best practices, and (3) address a range of privacy-related harms. However, in the absence of clear thresholds and detailed guidance on making case-specific determinations, flexibility in the interpretation and application of such standards also creates uncertainty for practitioners and often results in ad hoc, heuristic processes. This uncertainty may pose a barrier to the adoption of new technologies that depend on unambiguous privacy requirements. It can also lead organizations to implement measures that fall short of protecting against the full range of data privacy risks.

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