Privacy Enhancing Technologies

The Royal Society has researched Privacy Enhancing Technologies, and their use, development, and limits. The new report outlines the role of Privacy Enhancing Technologies in data governance and collaborative analysis.

How can technology support data governance and enable new, innovative uses of data for public benefit? 

The Royal Society’s Privacy Enhancing Technologies programme investigates the potential for tools and approaches collectively known as Privacy Enhancing Technologies, or PETs, in maximising the benefit and reducing the harms associated with data use.

Our 2023 report, From privacy to partnership: the role of Privacy Enhancing Technologies in data governance and collaborative analysis (PDF), was undertaken in close collaboration with the Alan Turing Institute, and considers the potential for PETs to revolutionise the safe and rapid use of sensitive data for wider public benefit. It considers the role of these technologies in addressing data governance issues beyond privacy, addressing the following questions:

  • How can PETs support data governance and enable new, innovative uses of data for public benefit?
  • What are the primary barriers and enabling factors around the adoption of PETs in data governance, and how might these be addressed or amplified?
  • How might PETs be factored into frameworks for assessing and balancing risks, harms and benefits when working with personal data?

In answering these questions, our report integrates evidence from a range of sources, including the advisement of an expert Working Group, consultation with a range of stakeholders across sectors, as well as a synthetic data explainer and commissioned reviews on UK public sector PETs adoption (PDF) and PETs standards and assurances (PDF), which are available for download.

This report builds on the Royal Society’s 2019 publication Protecting privacy in practice: the current use, development and limits of Privacy Enhancing Technologies for data analysis (PDF). Protecting privacy in practice presented a high-level overview of PETs and identified how these technologies could play a role in addressing privacy in applied data science research, digital strategies and data-driven business. 

What are Privacy Enhancing Technologies (PETs)?

Privacy Enhancing Technologies (PETs) are a suite of tools that can help maximise the use of data by reducing risks inherent to data use. Some PETs provide new tools for anonymisation, while others enable collaborative analysis on privately-held datasets, allowing data to be used without disclosing copies of data. PETs are multi-purpose: they can reinforce data governance choices, serve as tools for data collaboration or enable greater accountability through audit. For these reasons, PETs have also been described as “Partnership Enhancing Technologies” or “Trust Technologies”. 

What is data privacy, and why is it important?

The data we generate every day holds a lot of value and potentially also contains sensitive information that individuals or organisations might not wish to share with everyone. The protection of personal or sensitive data featured prominently in the social and ethical tensions identified in our 2017 British Academy and Royal Society report Data management and use: Governance in the 21st century. 

Privacy in Practice (2019)

Our 2019 report, Protecting privacy in practice (PDF), provided a high-level overview of five current and promising PETs of a diverse nature, with their respective readiness levels and illustrative case studies from a range of sectors, with a view to inform in particular applied data science research and the digital strategies of government departments and businesses. This report also included recommendations on how the UK could fully realise the potential of PETs and to allow their use on a greater scale. 

The 2019 project was informed by a series of conversations and evidence gathering events, involving a range of stakeholders across academia, government and the private sector (also see the project terms of reference and 2019 Working Group).

On a related topic, in 2017 the Royal Society also partnered with The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities to organise a workshop exploring notions of privacy as an individual and public good, how digital technologies might have changed concepts of privacy, and how individuals, organisations and societies manage privacy, including through technology. A note of discussions at this workshop (PDF) is available to download.

Our current Working Group includes Professor Alison Noble OBE FREng FIET FRS (Chair), Professor Jon Crowcroft FREng FRS, Mr George Balston, Dr Anthony Finkelstein CBE FREng, Mr Guy Cohen, Dr Benjamin Curtis, Professor Emiliano de Cristofaro, Dr Marion Oswald, Professor Carsten Maple and Dr Suzanne Weller.