Revealing information by trying to suppress it

FAS posted an article yesterday explaining how blurring military installations out of satellite photos points draws attention to them, showing exactly where they are and how big they are. The Russian mapping service Yandex Maps blurred out sensitive locations in Israel and Turkey. As the article says, this is an example of the Streisand effect, named after Barbara Streisand’s failed attempt to suppress photos of her Malibu home. Her efforts to protect her privacy caused the photos to go viral.

A similar issue arises in differential privacy. A practical implementation of differential privacy must rule out some queries a priori in some way that is not data-dependent. Otherwise it could be a violation of differential privacy either to answer or refuse to answer the same query. Short of refusing the query entirely, it could also be informative to reply “Are you sure you want to submit that query? It’s going to use up a lot of your privacy budget.”

Differential privacy adds random noise to query results, but in a more sophisticated way than Yandex blurring out portions of photos. Adding noise selectively reveals information about what the noise is trying to conceal. As the FAS article indicated, by blurring out only the sensitive areas, the blurred maps point out their exact location.

Selective security measures can have a similar effect. By placing greater protection on some information, you can mark that information as being particularly important. Once you realize this, otherwise nonsensical security measures start to make sense: applying uniform security results in excessive protection for some information, but keeps attackers from being able to identify the most valuable targets.

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