On Distributed Differential Privacy and Counting Distinct Elements

Authors Lijie Chen, Badih Ghazi, Ravi Kumar, Pasin Manurangsi

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Lijie Chen
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, USA
Badih Ghazi
  • Google Research, Mountain View, CA, USA
Ravi Kumar
  • Google Research, Mountain View, CA, USA
Pasin Manurangsi
  • Google Research, Mountain View, CA, USA


We would like to thank Noah Golowich for numerous enlightening discussions about lower bounds in the multi-message DP_{shuffle} model, and for helpful feedback. We also want to thank the anynomous ITCS reviewers for their helpful comments.

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Lijie Chen, Badih Ghazi, Ravi Kumar, and Pasin Manurangsi. On Distributed Differential Privacy and Counting Distinct Elements. In 12th Innovations in Theoretical Computer Science Conference (ITCS 2021). Leibniz International Proceedings in Informatics (LIPIcs), Volume 185, pp. 56:1-56:18, Schloss Dagstuhl – Leibniz-Zentrum für Informatik (2021)


We study the setup where each of n users holds an element from a discrete set, and the goal is to count the number of distinct elements across all users, under the constraint of (ε,δ)-differentially privacy: - In the non-interactive local setting, we prove that the additive error of any protocol is Ω(n) for any constant ε and for any δ inverse polynomial in n. - In the single-message shuffle setting, we prove a lower bound of Ω̃(n) on the error for any constant ε and for some δ inverse quasi-polynomial in n. We do so by building on the moment-matching method from the literature on distribution estimation. - In the multi-message shuffle setting, we give a protocol with at most one message per user in expectation and with an error of Õ(√n) for any constant ε and for any δ inverse polynomial in n. Our protocol is also robustly shuffle private, and our error of √n matches a known lower bound for such protocols. Our proof technique relies on a new notion, that we call dominated protocols, and which can also be used to obtain the first non-trivial lower bounds against multi-message shuffle protocols for the well-studied problems of selection and learning parity. Our first lower bound for estimating the number of distinct elements provides the first ω(√n) separation between global sensitivity and error in local differential privacy, thus answering an open question of Vadhan (2017). We also provide a simple construction that gives Ω̃(n) separation between global sensitivity and error in two-party differential privacy, thereby answering an open question of McGregor et al. (2011).

Subject Classification

ACM Subject Classification
  • Security and privacy → Privacy-preserving protocols
  • Differential Privacy
  • Shuffle Model


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