Covariance-Aware Private Mean Estimation Without Private Covariance Estimation

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 34 pre-proceedings (NeurIPS 2021)

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Gavin Brown, Marco Gaboardi, Adam Smith, Jonathan Ullman, Lydia Zakynthinou


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.