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DevJan 28, 20222 min read

PETs protect privacy and enable data use and sharing for good

Data Privacy Week (Jan. 24 to 28, 2022) is meant to highlight the impact technology is having on privacy rights and underline the importance of valuing and protecting personal information. To mark the occasion of Data Privacy Day on Jan. 28, I’d like to draw attention to the idea of using data for good. One of the ways to value and uphold the principles of privacy is to recognize it’s not about never using data but, rather, about protecting it, using it and sharing it appropriately and responsibly. Greater trust in and adoption of privacy-enhancing technologies (PETs) is part of the equation.

In fact, a recent  report by the Expert Advisory Group on the Pan-Canadian Health Data Strategy made the need for better access to data clear. It even noted a “privacy chill” arising from risk-averse interpretations of data sharing rules is hurting patient care and hampering responses to health crises. I think this kind of chill can actually do harm to the privacy cause.

I joined Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner, Patricia Kosseim, on her fantastic  podcast which aired last week to discuss data synthesis. As she pointed out in her introduction, advances in AI and machine learning can enable us to gain meaningful insight from data and make data-driven decisions to solve some of society’s most pressing problems in areas such as health, education and the environment, and help us realize broader societal benefits.  

It’s one of the reasons we’re seeing so much interest in synthetic data generation (SDG), which uses machine learning to create non-identifiable data. Some of the more traditional pseudonymization and de-identification methods are facing headwinds, such as re-identification attacks, regulator and public concerns, and challenging economics. Meanwhile, SDG is emerging as a contemporary PET that can address many of these challenges and provide high-utility data that can be used and shared for a variety of different  purposes.  

Regardless of the purposes, the risks must remain acceptably low to meet regulatory standards for privacy protection and for trust in SDG as a PET to continue to build. The good thing is, you don’t have to take it for granted that a synthetic data set is privacy-friendly. With our  privacy assurance technology, which reflects state-of-the art in this area, it’s all testable against commonly established standards and what we’re seeing in practice is it that privacy risks for synthetic data have been shown to be quite low, and lower than prevailing norms.

With this in mind, Data Privacy Day is a great opportunity to highlight the tremendous value of PETs, like synthetic data, which help us protect personal information and, at the same time, derive the many great societal and economic benefits of using and sharing data