UN launches privacy lab pilot to unlock cross-border data sharing benefits

The UN Committee of Experts on Big Data and Data Science for Official Statistics is launching a pilot lab programme, to make international data sharing more secure by using Privacy Enhancing Technologies (PETs)

Announced today at Dubai Expo 2020, the ‘UN PET Lab’ pilot programme will look to demonstrate how PETs can allow for fully compliant data sharing and insights between organisations, utilising publicly available trade data from UN Comtrade.

Four National Statistical Offices (NSOs) — the US Census Bureau; Statistics Netherlands; the Italian National Institute of Statistics; and the UK’s Office for National Statistics — will be involved in the project.

The PET Lab will see statistical bodies collaborate with tech providers that offer PET technologies.

Irish start-up Oblivious Software Limited, and privacy-focused open-source community OpenMined, have joined the project to enable safe experimentation with PETs and remove barriers to practical implementation.

Further users and providers are expected to join in due course.

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Opening stages

The lab’s first use case will see NSOs share data relating to the import and export of certain commodities recorded between their own country and all other countries in the group.

From here, each pair of countries will use PETs to discreetly check whether the amount of their bilateral trade corresponds or not.

The learning exercise will use pre-approved, publicly available data, and will aim to ‘iron out’ any technical, security, or bureaucratic challenges.

“Senior leaders are now talking about Privacy Enhancing Technologies to enable cross-border and cross-sector collaboration to solve shared challenges,” said Stefan Schweinfest, director of the UN Statistics Division.

“At the same time, PETs will protect shared values such as privacy, accountability, and transparency. This is an important moment for PETs to help improve official statistics, and support democratic societies, honouring citizens’ entitlement to trusted public information.”

Dr Jack Fitzsimons, founder of Oblivious, commented: “When you send data to a server (or person for that matter), there is well-established technology to make sure it lands at the right place. However, until now you’ve basically had no guarantee about how your data is actually used and if it’s kept within its original scope. 

“The work that the PET Lab is undertaking will be incredibly useful for international collaborations, and alleviate red flags for projects which may otherwise be impossible due to concerns over the handling of sensitive data.” 

The benefits of PETs

Privacy Enhancing Technologies (PETs) help data providers and users to safely share information, by using encryption and protocols that allow someone to produce useful output data without “seeing” the input data.

The technology also typically ensures that data will be protected throughout its lifecycle, and that outputs cannot be used to ‘reverse engineer’ the original data. 

Decisions made by governments on crucial policy issues such as the economy, environment, and healthcare could benefit from data provided by other countries.

This can include training shared AI and statistical models to learn from sensitive medical cases, or extracting key insights on performance of an economy or citizen behaviour from census data.

According to McKinsey, secure data sharing could unlock nearly $3 trillion worth of annual GDP over the next 20 years.

However, strict privacy regulations such as GDPR, along with an absence of trusted PET technology and data breach concerns all currently limit governments and institutions’ ability to share valuable information.

McKinsey estimates that only 1% of the world’s data is currently being used for analytics and collaborative purposes.

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Aaron Hurst

Aaron Hurst is Information Age's senior reporter, providing news and features around the hottest trends across the tech industry.