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Understanding Database Reconstruction Attacks on Public Data

By Simson Garfinkel, John M. Abowd, Christian Martindale

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 62 No. 3, Pages 46-53
10.1145/3287287

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In 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau will conduct the Constitutionally mandated decennial Census of Population and Housing. Because a census involves collecting large amounts of private data under the promise of confidentiality, traditionally statistics are published only at high levels of aggregation. Published statistical tables are vulnerable to database reconstruction attacks (DRAs), in which the underlying microdata is recovered merely by finding a set of microdata that is consistent with the published statistical tabulations. A DRA can be performed by using the tables to create a set of mathematical constraints and then solving the resulting set of simultaneous equations. This article shows how such an attack can be addressed by adding noise to the published tabulations, so the reconstruction no longer results in the original data. This has implications for the 2020 census.

The goal of the census is to count every person once, and only once, and in the correct place. The results are used to fulfill the Constitutional requirement to apportion the seats in the U.S. House of Representatives among the states according to their respective numbers.

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