Irish tech at heart of UN’s new privacy lab

UN wants to make international data sharing more secure through Privacy Enhancing Technologies.

Technology developed by NovaUCD start-up Oblivious Software is at the heart of a new pilot programme by the UN to make international data sharing more secure.

Announced at Dubai Expo 2020, the ‘UN PET Lab’ is running a pilot program with four National Statistical Offices (NSOs). These comprise the US Census Bureau, Statistics Netherlands, the Italian National Institute of Statistics and the UK’s Office for National Statistics.

“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 lab will demonstrate that PETs can make fully compliant data sharing and data insights between organizations possible for the first time, utilizing publicly available trade data from UN Comtrade.

Expo 2020 is a World Expo, currently hosted by Dubai in the United Arab Emirates from 1 October 2021 to 31 March 2022. Originally scheduled for 20 October 2020 to 10 April 2021, it was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Privacy enhancing technologies

Oblivious Software Limited, an Irish start-up, and privacy-focused open-source community OpenMined have already come on board to enable safe experimentation with PETs and remove the barriers to practical implementation. The Lab expects new users and providers to join in due course.

Oblivious AI has developed pioneering privacy enhancing technologies to help organisations keep sensitive data safe while creating insight opportunities for the data owners.

PETs help data providers and data users to safely share information by using encryption and protocols that allow someone to produce useful output data without “seeing” the input data. They also typically ensure 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. For example, training shared AI and statistical models to learn from sensitive medical cases from hospitals; or extracting key insights on the performance of an economy or the behaviours of its citizens from census data.

Research from McKinsey indicates that up to $3trn of global GDP could be unlocked by increased international data sharing. However, strict privacy regulations such as GDPR, in combination with an absence of trusted PET technology, currently limits 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. Concerns over data breaches are also playing their part, with the cost of a breach $4.24m on average, and cybercrime having increased by 600% in the Covid pandemic.

The PET Lab will see statistical organizations collaborate with technology providers who offer PET technologies.

Oblivious Software, a NovaUCD-headquartered company, was co-founded in 2020 by Dr Robert Pisarczyk and Dr Jack Fitzsimons.

“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,” explained Dr Jack Fitzsimons.

“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.”

Main image at top: Oblivious AI co-founder Dr Jack Fitzsimons speaking at EXPO 2020

John Kennedy
Award-winning ThinkBusiness.ie editor John Kennedy is one of Ireland's most experienced business and technology journalists.

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