The issue of how sensitive personal data is processed is becoming a serious political concern. So much so that an international Summit for Democracy has been used to raise the profile of the matter.

During the summit, various world leaders and government agencies discussed the delicate balance between using personal data for good – and its potential misuse. There was a particular emphasis on the way artificial intelligence (AI) treats sensitive private data.

We all need PETs

Machine learning and AI have been particularly effective for solving many modern challenges. From more accurate pricing of goods and services to accelerating diagnosis of serious medical conditions, technology is helping mankind turn personal data into action.

However, there is now an emphasis on better protecting the personal data being used by these systems. Participants at the Summit heard about the importance of privacy-enhancing technologies (PETs) and how they enable cross-border and cross-sector collaboration to solve shared challenges – without compromising personal privacy or intellectual property.

Encouraging new developments

As part of the Summit’s ‘year of action’ plan, the US and UK governments have created a new innovation prize. With a shared fund of £1.3m, the International Grand Challenges on Democracy-Affirming Technologies competition will encourage developers to create new solutions that overcome ‘technical gaps and adoption challenges related to PETs’.

More than simply creating new PETs, the competition is also intended to encourage closer collaboration between US and UK experts. Winning technologies are expected to help governments and businesses work more closely to solve ‘critical transnational challenges’.

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A transatlantic partnership

Announcing the new prize, Dr. Eric Lander, the President’s Science Advisor and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy said:

“Privacy-enhancing technologies are a critical component of the suite of democracy-affirming capabilities that can support our shared democratic values in the face of authoritarian exploitation of emerging technologies. It is imperative that we come together as democracies to develop approaches to unlock the economic, scientific, and societal benefits of emerging technologies while protecting shared values such as privacy, accountability, and transparency.”

In the UK, the then Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Nadine Dorries, added:

“The UK is striving to unlock the power of data across the economy. This prize challenge will build on the UK’s comprehensive National Data Strategy and help to raise the profile of these technologies on both sides of the Atlantic, laying the foundations for future collaboration.”

A series of challenges awaits

The prize will feature a series of challenges, each designed to address a specific cross-border issue. The first will be around building PETs that allow national governments to better tackle financial crime, particularly international money laundering. The second will be to develop new systems to securely share sensitive medical data in such a way that patient confidentiality is protected, but that national health services have the information they need to tackle major health emergencies – like pandemics.

It will be interesting to see how the competition develops – and the innovative new systems that eventually win the cash prizes.