Penn Staters influence new Apple privacy policy


UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Researchers at Penn State have had a positive impact on the privacy protections Apple is putting in place for its hundreds of millions of users.

The prominent hardware and software company recently announced that they will be using differential privacy to learn more about their users while still protecting each person’s privacy. Computer scientists and statisticians at Penn State—both faculty and students—are responsible for developing many of the techniques that will allow Apple to do so. 

The company, which prides itself on protecting its users’ privacy, uses differential privacy to collect information on its consumers while keeping that information private.

Differential privacy, according to computer science and engineering Professor Adam Smith, “refers to a class of techniques, many which were developed at Penn State, that will help Apple aggregate information about users’ behavior while ensuring that the raw information is never collected or stored by Apple.”

Smith co-authored a paper that proposed that standard in 2006. Since then, he said, there has been a lot of research on developing particular techniques that meet the standard, including quite a bit by Penn State researchers.

Because Apple strives to improve its operating systems to meet the growing needs of its users, it needs to collect some data on what they are doing. Smith said that according to the company’s announcement, they will deploy differentially private algorithms throughout their ecosystem in order learn about their users’ behaviors while ensuring their raw information is never collected or stored.

However Smith carefully noted: “Apple hasn't released any details about what specific techniques that satisfy the standard they will use. So we don't know exactly which, if any, of the specific algorithms developed at Penn State were put into use at Apple. All we know is that Penn State is a strong contributor to research on the standard they will employ.”

He added that Apple would not have adopted the standard without the existence of a body of work on techniques that satisfy the standard.

Other faculty at Penn State who are working in differential privacy include computer scientists Sofya Raskhodnikova and Dan Kifer in the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and statistics Professor Aleksandra Slavkovic in the Eberly College of Science.


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Rebekka Coakley

Adam Smith

Adam Smith



The School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science was created in the spring of 2015 to allow greater access to courses offered by both departments for undergraduate and graduate students in exciting collaborative research in fields.

We offer B.S. degrees in electrical engineering, computer science, computer engineering and data science and graduate degrees (master's degrees and Ph.D.'s) in electrical engineering and computer science and engineering. EECS focuses on the convergence of technologies and disciplines to meet today’s industrial demands.

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Department of Computer Science and Engineering


Department of Electrical Engineering