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Covariance-Aware Private Mean Estimation Without Private Covariance Estimation
Gavin Brown · Marco Gaboardi · Adam Smith · Jonathan Ullman · Lydia Zakynthinou

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We present two sample-efficient differentially private mean estimators for $d$-dimensional (sub)Gaussian distributions with unknown covariance. Informally, given $n \gtrsim d/\alpha^2$ samples from such a distribution with mean $\mu$ and covariance $\Sigma$, our estimators output $\tilde\mu$ such that $\| \tilde\mu - \mu \|_{\Sigma} \leq \alpha$, where $\| \cdot \|_{\Sigma}$ is the \emph{Mahalanobis distance}. All previous estimators with the same guarantee either require strong a priori bounds on the covariance matrix or require $\Omega(d^{3/2})$ samples. Each of our estimators is based on a simple, general approach to designing differentially private mechanisms, but with novel technical steps to make the estimator private and sample-efficient. Our first estimator samples a point with approximately maximum Tukey depth using the exponential mechanism, but restricted to the set of points of large Tukey depth. Proving that this mechanism is private requires a novel analysis. Our second estimator perturbs the empirical mean of the data set with noise calibrated to the empirical covariance. Only the mean is released, however; the covariance is only used internally. Its sample complexity guarantees hold more generally for subgaussian distributions, albeit with a slightly worse dependence on the privacy parameter. For both estimators, careful preprocessing of the data is required to satisfy differential privacy.

Author Information

Gavin Brown (Boston University)
Marco Gaboardi (Boston University)
Adam Smith (Boston University)
Jonathan Ullman (Northeastern University)
Lydia Zakynthinou (Northeastern University)

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