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Privacy Enhancing Technologies

21 July 2021

Privacy enhancing technologies

How can technologies help organisations and individuals protect data in practice and, at the same time, unlock opportunities for data access and use?

The Royal Society’s Privacy Enhancing Technologies project has been investigating this question with findings presented in the 2019 report Protecting privacy in practice: the current use, development and limits of Privacy Enhancing Technologies for data analysis (PDF).  The report set out the use, development and limits of privacy enhancing technologies (PETs) in data analysis. 

A refresher to this project, being carried out in partnership with the Alan Turing Institute, is currently underway. This new work will illustrate the efficacy of PETs in practice as research and innovation-enabling technologies by outlining new use cases across different sectors. It is led by a committee of experts and informed by a range of evidence gathering activities.

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. For example, how can organisations best use data for public good whilst protecting sensitive information about individuals? Under other circumstances, how can they share data with groups with competing interests whilst protecting commercially or otherwise sensitive information? 

Realising the full potential of large-scale data analysis may be constrained by important legal, reputational, political, business and competition concerns. Certain risks can potentially be mitigated and managed with a set of emerging technologies and approaches often collectively referred to as ‘Privacy Enhancing Technologies’.  

What are Privacy Enhancing Technologies (PETs)? 

PETs are a disruptive set of technologies and approaches which, when combined with changes in wider policy and business frameworks, could enable the sharing and use of data in a privacy-preserving manner. They also have the potential to reshape the data economy and to change the trust relationships between citizens, governments and companies. 

Privacy in Practice 

The 2019 report 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, 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, and Professor Carsten Maple.

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