Professor awarded Test of Time award for paper on data privacy

Sarah Small
July 23, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A 2011 paper on data privacy co-authored by Dan Kifer, professor of computer science and engineering at Penn State, received the 2021 Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Management of Data (ACM SIGMOD) Test of Time award.

The paper, No Free Lunch in Data Privacy, was co-authored by Ashwin Machanavajjhala, associate professor of computer science at Duke University, and published in the Proceeding of the 2011 ACM SIGMOD International Conference on Management of Data. The work examines how an individual’s information can be embedded in data sets in ways that make privacy protections difficult.

“I am humbled to receive this award and grateful to all my collaborators on this and other privacy papers for helping me learn about this complex and subtle topic,” Kifer said.

According to a statement from the awards committee, this work is "a foundational paper on data privacy that has spawned much follow-up work and belongs in the curriculum of any course on data privacy. It raises fundamental questions on how to define privacy, and the situations when differential private mechanisms provide meaningful semantic privacy guarantees.”

The work detailed in the paper led to improved privacy frameworks, according to the committee. Importantly, ideas from the paper were used by the Census Bureau to ensure privacy in the 2020 Decennial Census.

“The Census Bureau considered which statistics should be published exactly — without any noise,” Kifer said. “Our paper was the first to anticipate the possibility that someone might consider doing so — nine years in advance — and examined its effect on privacy protections and the degradations in privacy it could cause.”

The award was presented at the 2021 SIGMOD conference, which took place virtually from June 20-25.

  • A headshot of a man wearing a gray suit jacket, white shirt and a dark gray tie

    Dan Kifer, professor of computer science and engineering.

    IMAGE: Penn State College of Engineering

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Last Updated July 23, 2021