Why Estonians have the answer to protecting your private data

What if there’s a way to use private data for intended purposes and not actually breach anyone’s privacy? Thanks to the Estonian company, Cybernetica, it is not a distant future technology but a reality today.

On one hand, our society has been reshaped by technology – we rely extensively on technology, software programmes are being used more widely, new economic models and businesses have sprung and companies use our data more efficiently. On the other hand, this fast-paced development and ever-increasing security risks have sprung new Orwellian-like digital fears like serious invasion of personal privacy. While these concerns are somewhat valid and cannot be underestimated, limiting technological capabilities and restricting usage simply because of fear is not the answer. Rather, the smart thing to do is develop ways to keep data secure and private. For this, the Estonian scientists have come to rescue and literally made the world a bit safer place.

An Estonian R&D company Cybernetica has developed a technology to combine and analyse data from different sources without breaking privacy. Its Sharemind system can do statistics more accurately and privately than what was possible before.

The concept is called “shared multi-party computation”, which means allowing several database users combine and analyse encrypt data while keeping it that way. To simplify the complex system even further, Sharemind divides each piece of encrypted data into three random separate servers. A person having access to one server would not breach privacy since one piece of data on its own would not reveal much. Relevant data would only appear after Sharemind combined and analysed it. With current technology, data needs to be decrypted in order to analyse it and this creates heavy privacy restrictions. Third-party computation programs, such as Sharemind, however, compute using encrypted data.

Cybernetica has worked on its technology for almost ten years, researching homomorphic cryptography and secure computing. The technology has been recognised and boosted by the PROCEED program of DARPA in the US, and the European Commission Usable and Efficient Secure Multi-party Computation project.

Last year, Sharemind enabled to conduct world’s first cryptographically private social study, which combined data from national tax and education databases to research the study behaviour of working students. Protective measures provided by the system were sufficient to satisfy the requirements of the Data Protection Act and even stricter Taxation Act. Meaning, Sharemind could anonymously use highly personal tax and education records, which are under legal protection. The results were much more accurate than they could have ever been before. This can lead to new applications that organisations have dreamed of, but have been unable to create.

Cybernetica team

What if governments could simulate the effects of new policies based on historical data, as if they came into force five or ten years ago? This would show leaders how a decision would have played out in the economy and whether it would have justified the investment. Previously, these simulations would have been highly difficult to perform as they would require bringing together sensitive data from many sources. Sharemind could make these sort of studies a standard tool in decision-making.

But the programme is not just for governmental use. Imagine if consulting companies could ask their data providers for more information to sell higher quality reports. What if companies could get much more accurate customer insights without breaking anyone’s privacy? What if you knew whether you or your competitor is selling more products in your country without going through your competitor’s accounting records? Correctly predicting tomorrow’s markets can make or break a company. It’s not about big data, it’s really about the right data, which Sharemind could provide us with.

Based on this achievement, it seems that Estonian scientists have once again showed their progressiveness in the ICT field and created something extraordinary for this world. According to Dr Dan Bogdanov, the mastermind behind the Sharemind programme, the philosophy of it is to collaborate for a common good. Following this, the company is reaching out internationally to help organisations break data sharing barriers with Sharemind.

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