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Revisiting the Economics of Privacy: Population Statistics and Confidentiality Protection as Public Goods

Author

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  • John M. Abowd
  • Ian M. Schmutte

Abstract

We consider the problem of determining the optimal accuracy of public statistics when increased accuracy requires a loss of privacy. To formalize this allocation problem, we use tools from statistics and computer science to model the publication technology used by a public statistical agency. We derive the demand for accurate statistics from first principles to generate interdependent preferences that account for the public-good nature of both data accuracy and privacy loss. We first show data accuracy is inefficiently undersupplied by a private provider. Solving the appropriate social planner’s problem produces an implementable publication strategy. We implement the socially optimal publication plan for statistics on income and health status using data from the American Community Survey, National Health Interview Survey, Federal Statistical System Public Opinion Survey and Cornell National Social Survey. Our analysis indicates that welfare losses from providing too much privacy protection and, therefore, too little accuracy can be substantial.

Suggested Citation

  • John M. Abowd & Ian M. Schmutte, 2017. "Revisiting the Economics of Privacy: Population Statistics and Confidentiality Protection as Public Goods," Working Papers 17-37, Center for Economic Studies, U.S. Census Bureau.
  • Handle: RePEc:cen:wpaper:17-37
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    File URL: https://www2.census.gov/ces/wp/2017/CES-WP-17-37.pdf
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    References listed on IDEAS

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    1. Alessandro Acquisti & Curtis Taylor & Liad Wagman, 2016. "The Economics of Privacy," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 54(2), pages 442-492, June.
    2. Alessandro Acquisti & Hal R. Varian, 2005. "Conditioning Prices on Purchase History," Marketing Science, INFORMS, vol. 24(3), pages 367-381, May.
    3. George J. Stigler, 1980. "An Introduction to Privacy in Economics and Politics," University of Chicago - George G. Stigler Center for Study of Economy and State 10, Chicago - Center for Study of Economy and State.
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    5. Ori Heffetz & Katrina Ligett, 2014. "Privacy and Data-Based Research," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 28(2), pages 75-98, Spring.
    6. George A. Akerlof, 1997. "Social Distance and Social Decisions," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 65(5), pages 1005-1028, September.
    7. John M. Abowd & Ian M. Schmutte, 2015. "Economic Analysis and Statistical Disclosure Limitation," Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, Economic Studies Program, The Brookings Institution, vol. 46(1 (Spring), pages 221-293.
    8. Erzo F. P. Luttmer, 2005. "Neighbors as Negatives: Relative Earnings and Well-Being," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 120(3), pages 963-1002.
    9. Postlewaite, Andrew, 1998. "The social basis of interdependent preferences," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 42(3-5), pages 779-800, May.
    10. Pollak, Robert A, 1976. "Interdependent Preferences," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 66(3), pages 309-320, June.
    11. Aronsson, Thomas & Johansson-Stenman, Olof, 2008. "When the Joneses' consumption hurts: Optimal public good provision and nonlinear income taxation," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 92(5-6), pages 986-997, June.
    12. Alessandro Acquisti & Leslie K. John & George Loewenstein, 2013. "What Is Privacy Worth?," The Journal of Legal Studies, University of Chicago Press, vol. 42(2), pages 249-274.
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    Cited by:

    1. Daniel H. Weinberg & John M. Abowd & Robert F. Belli & Noel Cressie & David C. Folch & Scott H. Holan & Margaret C. Levenstein & Kristen M. Olson & Jerome P. Reiter & Matthew D. Shapiro & Jolene Smyth, 2017. "Effects of a Government-Academic Partnership: Has the NSF-Census Bureau Research Network Helped Improve the U.S. Statistical System?," Working Papers 17-59r, Center for Economic Studies, U.S. Census Bureau.
    2. James Gaboardi, 2020. "Validating Abstract Representations of Spatial Population Data while considering Disclosure Avoidance," Working Papers 20-5, Center for Economic Studies, U.S. Census Bureau.
    3. James Gaboardi, 2020. "Validating Abstract Representations of Spatial Population Data while considering Disclosure Avoidance," Working Papers 20-05, Center for Economic Studies, U.S. Census Bureau.
    4. Daniel H. Weinberg & John M. Abowd & Robert F. Belli & Noel Cressie & David C. Folch & Scott H. Holan & Margaret C. Levenstein & Kristen M. Olson & Jerome P. Reiter & Matthew D. Shapiro & Jolene Smyth, 2017. "Effects of a Government-Academic Partnership: Has the NSF-Census Bureau Research Network Helped Improve the U.S. Statistical System?," Working Papers 17-59, Center for Economic Studies, U.S. Census Bureau.

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