What can we, as users of microdata, formally guarantee to the individuals (or firms) in our dataset, regarding their privacy? We retell a few stories, well-known in data-privacy circles, of failed anonymization attempts in publicly released datasets. We then provide a mostly informal introduction to several ideas from the literature on differential privacy, an active literature in computer science that studies formal approaches to preserving the privacy of individuals in statistical databases. We apply some of its insights to situations routinely faced by applied economists, emphasizing big-data contexts.
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