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Public sector needs to adopt Privacy Enhancing Technologies to unlock lifesaving data, says Royal Society


The NHS and other public sector institutions should lead the way in piloting Privacy Enhancing Technologies (PETs) that could help unlock ‘lifesaving’ data without compromising privacy, a report by the Royal Society has said.

From privacy to partnership, the report from the UK’s national academy of science, highlights cases where better use of data could have significant public benefits – from cancer research to reaching net-zero carbon emissions.

PETs encompass a suite of tools, such as a new generation of encryption and synthetic data, that could help deliver those benefits by reducing risks inherent to data use. However, their adoption to date has been limited.

The report, which profiles public sector readiness for PETs, calls for public bodies to champion these technologies in partnership with small-and-medium-sized enterprises, and for the UK government to establish a ‘national strategy for the responsible use of PETs’.

This should support data use for public good through establishment of common standards for PETs, as well as bursaries and prizes to incentivise and accelerate development of a marketplace for their application.

Read the full report.

This builds on the Royal Society’s 2019 Protecting privacy in practice (PDF). Following rapid developments in the field, the new report aims to establish principles and standards for the responsible use of PETs. This includes ensuring PETs are not limited to private sector organisations but are also used in cross-sector data partnerships for collaborative analysis to achieve wider public benefit.

Healthcare is a key use case identified by the report. Medical technology advances, coupled with comprehensive electronic patient records in the NHS and a strong academic research base, mean “the UK is well positioned to deliver timely and impactful health research and its translation to offer more effective treatments, track and prevent public health risks, utilising health data to improve and save lives,” the report said. 

There is ‘significant appetite’ across the public sector to make better use of national data, to drive innovation, support policy making and improve services.

For example, PETs could have significant implications for information flow and insights generation – such as, combining privacy-enhanced AI with existing medical imaging data to help detect cancer in patients.

But few organisations, particularly in the public sector, are prepared to experiment with new methods of storing, using and sharing sensitive data.

This report presents a series of use cases which outline inherent vulnerabilities of data use and offers examples of the solutions PETs could provide. 

For example, if properly understood and regulated, PETs could help maximise the value of data while addressing the potential risks which new technologies can pose to privacy and data rights of individuals, the commercial advantage of businesses or the preservation of national security.

They are not ‘silver bullet’ solutions to these data protection problems, but rather they provide novel building blocks for constructing responsible data governance systems.

Alongside changes in business and policy frameworks, PETs could help establish ethical, legal and responsible data partnerships for collaborative analysis, unlocking the value of data without providing full access to data or compromising data rights.

There are many application areas which may benefit from PETs adoption including: biometric data for health research and diagnostics; increasing safe access to social media data and accountability on social media platforms; enhancing privacy in the Internet of Things and in digital twins; collective intelligence, crime detection and voting in digital governance; PETs in crisis situations and in analysis of humanitarian data.

Chair of the report’s working group, Professor Alison Noble OBE FREng FRS, Technikos Professor of Biomedical Engineering, University of Oxford, said: 

“PETs are already revolutionising the way data is used, from enabling greater cross-analysis between organisations to fuelling AI in medical diagnostics. But public trust is a fundamental component of responsible data use and can be easily undermined through hasty implementation or poor communication. 

“Now is the time to agree standards and best practice for PETs adoption to ensure these technologies are used for the greatest public benefit, without compromising the data rights of individuals. Not only do we need a national PETs strategy, but the public sector should lead by example by trialling and communicating results to the wider public to build trust and demonstrate value for money.

“Our report arrives at a time of rapid innovation in PETs, and we hope that through our recommendations the UK will maximise the opportunity to be a global leader in the field.”

Professor Jon Crowcroft FREng FRS, Marconi Professor of Communications Systems, University of Cambridge, and Researcher at Large, The Alan Turing Institute, said:

“There is an ever-increasing amount of data out there, but responsible practitioners have been loath to rush in recklessly for fear of emulating the privacy-invasive practices unfortunately widespread in some of the tech sector. Until recently, societal benefits of data have been limited by this caution.

“The appropriate use of Privacy Enhancing Technologies allows more use of data while reducing the risks of breaches of confidentiality. But before any of these technologies can be used safely, the UK Government needs to set out clear legal and ethical standards to allow the public sector the confidence to use data to its full potential.”

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