Irish start-up working with new UN privacy lab to unlock data sharing benefits

28 Jan 2022

Dr Jack Fitzsimons speaking at the launch of the UN PET Lab project. Image: The UAE Federal Competitiveness and Statistics Centre

Oblivious Software co-founder Dr Jack Fitzsimons discusses the potential of an initiative focused on privacy-enhancing technologies.

The UN is launching a virtual lab that will look to unlock the benefits of international data sharing, with the help of Irish tech start-up Oblivious Software.

There is a large economic incentive to improve international data sharing. In 2019, global consulting firm McKinsey estimated that connecting data across institutional and geographic boundaries could create roughly $3trn in annual economic value by 2020.

With the new UN lab, experts from national statistics organisations (NSOs), the private sector and academia will be focusing on privacy-enhancing technologies (PETs) that could allow private data to be analysed and processed without offering direct access to it.

Decisions made by governments on policy issues relating to areas such as the economy, environment and healthcare could benefit from data provided by other countries. One example of this would be extracting key insights on the performance of an economy or the behaviours of its citizens from census data.

The goal of the UN PET Lab is to demonstrate that PETs can make fully compliant data sharing and data insights between organisations possible for the first time. Dublin-based Oblivious and privacy-focused community OpenMined have joined the programme to enable safe experimentation with PETs. The lab also expects new users and providers to join in the future.

Head of technology and co-founder of Oblivious, Dr Jack Fitzsimons, told that the idea of the virtual lab began last summer.

“In a relatively short time frame, we already have two techniques demonstrated on a use case relating to international trade data provided by the UN Comtrade.”

The UN PET Lab’s pilot programme was announced at the Dubai Expo 2020 on 26 January. Under the UN Committee of Experts on Big Data and Data Science for Official Statistics, it will be working with four NSOs. These are the US Census Bureau, Statistics Netherlands, the Italian National Institute of Statistics and the UK’s Office for National Statistics.

Fitzsimons said that NSOs are prime candidates to “pioneer new technologies such as these”, as they have stringent responsibilities to protect the data they work with while having a duty to provide data and statistics for policy decisions.

“The work of the lab to date would be nothing without them driving it forward,” he added.

Oblivious involvement

Oblivious was founded in 2020 by Fitzsimons and Dr Robert Pisarczyk and is based out of NovaUCD at University College Dublin. The start-up, which recently raised $1.05m in seed funding, focuses on the transparent processing of confidential data.

Fitzsimons said the company has been working with the UN Committee of Experts for two years as part of the Privacy-Preserving Technologies Task Team. This was formed in April 2018 to bridge the gap between privacy technology providers and NSOs. He added that the new lab is “really an extension” of Oblivious’s work with this team.

“The UN PET Lab, of course, is not intended to advocate for an individual vendor or specific PET. Rather, it is a highly collaborative environment where we have been fortunate to work with other great tools and organisations.”

Fitzsimons described PETs as a set of techniques that enable the processing and sharing of data without revealing the underlying private or sensitive information. He said Oblivious’s technology allows multiple parties to run joint computations without revealing their data to each other.

“As a long-term goal, I think privacy-enhancing technologies can change how people think and interact with other parties over the internet, from a consumer level right through to a B2B level … They have the potential to radically change how individuals and corporations interact with each other on a daily basis.”

GDPR and privacy

Fitzsimons said one of the key forces behind the growth of PETs is the introduction of privacy regulations around the world, such as GDPR.

Last December, Ireland set up a Data Governance Board to create and implement a framework on the usage and sharing of data across the public service sector. Under the framework, the Government said that data will “only be shared where necessary and only in accordance with the law”. And under the Schrems II ruling in July 2020, transfers of personal data from the EU to the US can only take place if there is a sufficient level of protection.

Fitzsimons said regulators have started looking at PETs to help with data sharing and that the EU Commission has pointed to a lack of technological solutions to achieve “responsible and privacy-compliant data sharing between organisations”.

“Nevertheless, PETs are not one-size-fits-all solutions and each use case needs to be considered individually,” he added. “PETs are a tool that can help to stay compliant, but they are not a remedy for all the aspects of privacy compliance.”

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic