07 June 2015

A Bloom filter is a probabilistic data structure that approximately and efficiently answers the set membership question. Given a Bloom filter B constructed out of the elements of a set , returns or , indicating the membership of in . Bloom filters are approximate since they can return false positives. The false positive rate for a Bloom filter can be expressed by:

An interesting question is: Can Bloom filters be used to compute whether two sets are disjoint?

That is, given a set represented by a Bloom filter , and another set , can we use the Bloom filter to accurately determine whether ? An obvious procedure to compute disjointness is:

Procedure : Iterate through each element of the set . If for any element , then return , else return .

Before we can reason about the accuracy of this procedure, let’s define the following events:

  • : the event that and are disjoint (and to be its complement), and
  • : the event that is accurate (and to be its complement).

Now, we make the following claims about our procedure :

Claim 1: .

In other words, our procedure is guaranteed to be correct when and are not disjoint. This claim follows easily from the fact that a Bloom filter cannot have false negatives, i.e., if does exist in , then will return .

Claim 2: .

In other words, can be inaccurate when and are disjoint. Specifically, this procedure can be inaccurate if the Bloom filter returns for at least one element in , given that no element in belongs to . But how inaccurate? It is often easier to compute the probability of the complementary event , which is the event that the Bloom filter returns for every element of . The probability that the Bloom filter returns for a given element can be expressed by:

Assuming independence of Bloom filter output for the different elements of , and assuming that has elements, we can write:

Further, notice that the likelihood of the sets being disjoint has nothing whatsoever to do with the Bloom filter accuracy (I like to picture it as: ). In other words, and are independent! If we wanted to be explicit, we could apply Bayes’ Theorem:

from which it follows that:


Since , the inaccuracy grows with . This makes intuitive sense since the larger the set , the more the chances that we will run into a Bloom filter false positive. In plain English: Bloom filters are probably not a good idea for computing whether two sets are disjoint.

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