The business-enabling power of privacy enhancing technologies

Data privacy

Over the past few years, there has been an acceleration in the enterprise-level understanding of Privacy Enhancing Technologies (PETs), a category best known for its ability to enable and preserve the security and privacy of data when it is being used or processed. While some technologies within the category, including homomorphic encryption, trusted execution environments, and secure multiparty computation, had previously been academically pursued but not computationally practical, the tide has  changed.

Technological development, surging awareness, and increasing adoption of PETs in recent years have alerted regulators, analysts, and broader industry to their potential impact and opened up a wealth of exciting and transformative opportunities for businesses.

The power of PETs

In the wake of rapid digital transformation and innovation, organizations must use data to their advantage to better understand existing and potential customers, introduce new products and services, and keep pace with competitors. At the same time, how businesses approach data protection is under intense scrutiny. Balancing the competing priorities of data usage and data protection is a challenge that will define success and failure for many businesses. With new privacy regulations increasingly entering into the equation, there is very little margin for error. In just the last year, we’ve seen the UK Data Protection and Digital Information Bill and the American Data Privacy and Protection Act advance through the regulatory scene, introducing layers of complexity to existing legislation such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). With so many competing regulations in play, business leaders may feel like the path to data usage is filled with potential pitfalls.

One major obstacle affecting businesses’ ability to leverage data are the silos established to ensure privacy and security requirements are followed. While important, these barriers significantly limit how businesses can use data. This is where PETs come into play. PETs allow organizations to leverage data assets across boundaries while still respecting the reasons they were put in place. What sets PETs apart is their distinctive ability to safeguard data while in use, enabling entities to confidentially and securely harness data resources across different domains.

Data exists in three primary states: at rest (within file systems/databases), in transit (while moving through networks), and in use (during processing). When considering the meaningful processing of data, it predominantly revolves around two fundamental functions: search and analytics. These operations allow users to uncover information and derive valuable insights from data to drive value for the organization. By enabling businesses to securely and privately search and analyze data assets across boundaries, PETs bridge the gap between data usage and data protection, enabling organizations to extract value from data in ways that were not previously possible.

Growing prominence and adoption

As with all significant shifts in mindset and behavior, the endorsement and use of technology by governments, regulators, industry bodies, and influential organizations can accelerate adoption -- and that is the case for PETs. The likes of the United Nations (UN), The Royal Society, the U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the Open Data Institute (ODI) have all made PETs a focal point of their efforts, exploring and promoting the use of the technologies within the category.

The ODI recently launched its Privacy Enhancing Technologies (PETs) program, which aims to “explore how further safe and secure data use might be possible, and how it might lead to more positive economic, social and environmental benefits”. The CISA also recently issued its updated Zero Trust guidance, emphasizing that organizations reaching the 'Optimal' implementation threshold must "encrypt data in use where appropriate". This particular practice can only be accomplished through the utilization of PETs. The UN operates a specialized lab dedicated to PETs and recently released the "UN Guide on Privacy-Enhancing Technologies for Official Statistics". The primary objective of this guide is to assist National Statistic Offices in safeguarding data while analyzing and distributing sensitive information. Yet another comprehensive report published by The Royal Society delves into the potential of PETs to address the equilibrium between the risks and rewards associated with data usage. According to the report's findings, this balance ultimately contributes to broader societal advantages.

The momentum behind PETs is clear, and while the category has a way to go to reach its full potential, these technologies are already having a real impact today for use cases relating to cross-silo data sharing and collaboration.

The transformative future of PETs

As the amount of available data continues to grow, the need for PETs-powered capabilities will increase. Gartner sees PETs as a critical technology for the future, predicting that “by 2025, 60 percent of large organizations will use privacy-enhancing computation techniques to protect privacy in untrusted environments or for analytics purposes”. PETs enable organizations to protect data -- and their interests -- while still ensuring its usability.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are applications receiving a great deal of attention at the moment. While the adoption and advancement of AI and ML is certainly exciting, one area that must not be overlooked is how to leverage these capabilities securely. Privacy-Preserving Machine Learning is the fusion of PETs and ML. It enables organizations to extract key insights and foster collaboration, all the while safeguarding Intellectual Property, data sensitivity, and adherence to compliance benchmarks. Using PPML, organizations can center their attention on the business advantages of the outcomes obtained, rather than the inherent risks of the ML model itself and its associated utilization.

The need to balance data usage with data protection has become a keystone of modern business. With mounting regulatory pressures, rapid digital transformation and the vast quantity of data available to businesses, it is inevitable that PETs will continue to gain recognition and traction for their business-enabling characteristics. As a growing number of organizations begin to take advantage of PETs to leverage data securely and privately across silos, we will begin to see an even broader range of examples where data is being used to facilitate innovation and enhance business outcomes.

Image credit: Rawpixel / depositphotos

Dr Ellison Anne Williams is CEO, Enveil.

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