Skip to the main content

Privacy Tools

The Privacy Tools Project is a broad effort to advance a multidisciplinary understanding of data privacy issues and build computational, statistical, legal, and policy tools to help address these issues in a variety of contexts.

Growth in information technology, advances in statistical computing, and the deluge of new and expanding data sources are enabling the mining of large-scale data sets to infer new insights about human characteristics and behaviors and driving demand for large data sets for scientific inquiry, public policy, and innovation. At the same time, these developments are putting enormous pressure on traditional approaches to protecting individual privacy. By leveraging advances in computer science, social science, statistics, and law, the Privacy Tools project aims to further the tremendous value that can come from collecting, analyzing, and sharing data while more fully protecting individual privacy. This effort seeks to translate the theoretical promise of new technical measures for privacy and data utility into definitions and measures of privacy and data utility, as well as practical computational, legal, and policy tools for enabling privacy-protective access to sensitive data in a variety of contexts.

The Privacy Tools project was incubated by Harvard's Center for Research on Computation and Society, and continues to be a collaborative effort between several units at Harvard University (the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Institute for Quantitative Social Science, and Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society), Georgetown University (Computer Science Department), Boston University (Computer Science Department) and MIT (Center for Research in Equitable and Open Scholarship). Executive Director and Harvard Law School Professor of Practice Urs Gasser leads the Berkman Klein Center's role in this exciting initiative, which brings the Center's institutional knowledge and practical experience to help tackle the legal and policy-based issues in the larger project. The Center is working with faculty, fellows, research assistants, and collaborators across the wider project team to distill key definitional issues, explore new and existing legal and regulatory frameworks, and develop legal instruments, frameworks, and policy recommendations that complement and situate the project’s computational and statistical tools for privacy-protective sharing of data.

The project’s initial unifying focus was the design of tools for privacy-protective sharing of research data in social science data repositories. Over time, it has expanded to address additional use cases, including improving the replicability and reproducibility of data in empirical social science, and bridging the understanding of legal and technical privacy concepts relevant to statistical agencies such as the US Census Bureau. Members of this team are also part of the Data Co-ops project funded at Georgetown University to develop technical and legal tools for re-envisioning the information ecosystem. In addition to contributing to data publishing infrastructure around the world, the ideas developed in this project aim to benefit society more broadly as it grapples with data privacy issues in many other domains, including public health and electronic commerce.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. CNS-1237235, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the US Census Bureau under cooperative agreement no. CB16ADR0160001. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, or the US Census Bureau.

Our Work 21

Mar 6, 2023

Apply now for the BKC Summer 2023 Internship Program

Applications due by Monday, March 27 at 5:00pm ET.

BKC summer interns are substantively involved in BKC's projects, programs, and other efforts...

Jun 21, 2021

What a Hybrid Legal-Technical Analysis Teaches Us About Privacy Regulation

The Case of Singling Out

Micah Altman, Aloni Cohen, Kobbi Nissim, and Alexandra Wood published a new article “What a Hybrid Legal-Technical Analysis Teaches Us About Privacy Regulation: The Case of…

Feb 25, 2021

Surveillance and the ‘New Normal’ of Covid-19: Public Health, Data, and Justice

BKC community members share insights as part of SSRC Public Health, Surveillance, & Human Rights Network.

SSRC report shares strategies for building a more responsible social infrastructure. 

Feb 18, 2021

Designing Access with Differential Privacy

Explaining how administrative data containing personal information can be collected, analyzed, and published in a way that ensures the individuals in the data will be afforded the…

Mar 4, 2019

Data Protection’s Composition Problem

Why privacy and data protection regulations should be designed to explicitly regulate cumulative risk in a manner that is consistent with the science of composition effects.

Nov 1, 2018

Differential Privacy

A Primer for a Non-Technical Audience

This primer aims to provide a foundation that can guide future decisions when analyzing and sharing statistical data about individuals, informing individuals about the privacy…

Oct 18, 2018

Is Privacy Privacy?

How have different technical and normative conceptions of privacy evolved? What are the practical challenges that these divergent approaches pose?

Aug 21, 2018

Bridging the Gap between Computer Science and Legal Approaches to Privacy

A look at the gaps that exist between how privacy risks are conceptualized between the fields of law and computer science

Royal Society
Aug 6, 2018

Is privacy privacy?

On the differing and evolving notions of privacy across normative and technical perspectives

Aug 3, 2018

A Harm-Reduction Framework for Algorithmic Fairness

Any evaluation of algorithmic fairness must consider a counterfactual analysis of the effects that algorithmic design, implementation, and use have on the well-being of…

The Boston Globe
Jun 15, 2018

What Facebook can learn from academia about protecting privacy

The death of privacy is not inevitable.

Mar 13, 2018

Comments to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, Re: New Techniques and Methodologies Based on Combining Data from Multiple Sources

On March 13, 2018, members of the Privacy Tools Project submitted comments to…

Mar 12, 2018

Practical Approaches to Big Data Privacy Over Time

This article analyzes how privacy risks multiply as large quantities of personal data are collected over longer periods of time.

May 31, 2016

Towards a Modern Approach to Privacy-Aware Government Data Releases

Governments are under increasing pressure to promote transparency, accountability, and innovation by making the data they hold available to the public. Because the data often…

Mar 31, 2016

Elements of a New Ethical Framework for Big Data Research

The Berkman Center is pleased to announce the publication of a new paper from the Privacy Tools for Sharing Research Data project team. In this paper, Effy Vayena, Urs Gasser,…

Jan 20, 2016

Privacy Tools Project submits comments on proposed revisions to the Common Rule

On January 6, 2016, members of the Privacy Tools for Sharing Research Data project submitted comments in response to the September 2015 notice of proposed rulemaking to revise the…

Mar 27, 2015

Integrating Approaches to Privacy Across the Research Lifecycle: When Is Information Purely Public?

This workshop report, the second in a series, identifies selected questions and explores issues around the meaning of “public” in the context of using data about individuals for…

Aug 4, 2014

New Report: “Integrating Approaches to Privacy across the Research Lifecycle: Long-term Longitudinal Studies”

The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University is pleased to announce a new publication from its Privacy Tools for Sharing Research Data project team, titled …

Aug 3, 2014

Integrating Approaches to Privacy across the Research Lifecycle: Long-term Longitudinal Studies

This paper explores interdisciplinary approaches to privacy in long-term longitudinal studies of human subjects. Long-term longitudinal studies collect, at multiple points over a…

Oct 30, 2012

Announcing the Privacy Tools for Sharing Research Data Project

The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University is pleased to announce the Privacy Tools for Sharing Research Data project, a collaborative, multidisciplinary…

Community 02

Journal of Medical Internet Research

Revolutionizing Medical Data Sharing Using Advanced Privacy-Enhancing Technologies: Technical, Legal, and Ethical Synthesis

Effy Vayena and colleagues publish in Journal of Medical Internet Research

Feb 26, 2021
New York Times

To Reduce Privacy Risks, the Census Plans to Report Less Accurate Data

Guaranteeing people’s confidentiality has become more of a challenge, but some scholars worry that the new system will impede research.

Dec 5, 2018

People 03

Point of Contact


Urs Gasser


Related Projects & Tools 01

Privacy Initiatives

The Berkman Klein Center has long been home to a number of cross-disciplinary initiatives that investigate privacy and privacy-relevant questions in the digitally networked…