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UK, US prepare to launch PET project

A transatlantic prize challenge to accelerate development of privacy-enhancing technologies is set to begin

A series of joint UK-US prize challenges designed to accelerate development and adoption of privacy-enhancing technologies (PETs) will get under way later this summer, with a focus on combating financial crime. Challenge solutions will be showcased at US president Joe Biden’s second Summit for Democracy in early 2023.

First announced by the Americans more than six months ago ahead of the first Summit for Democracy, the prize challenges – which are open to innovators in both countries – have been developed by the UK’s Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI), Innovate UK, and the US National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) and National Science Foundation (NSF).

They form part of a broader CDEI work programme focused on enabling responsible data access – which was formally announced today – centred on piloting and scaling new approaches to enabling trustworthy access to data.

Speaking at the Global Leaders Innovation Summit at London Tech Week, minister for media, data and digital infrastructure Julia Lopez said PETs could be harnessed to tackle multiple global challenges, from Covid-19 to human trafficking, by enabling insights to be derived from sensitive data, while preserving the privacy of the information.

“I’m delighted that the UK and the US are working with regulators on both sides of the Atlantic to help realise the potential of novel PETs to tackle financial crime,” said Lopez. “The UK’s National Data Strategy outlines the promise of PETs in enabling trustworthy data access. PETs have the potential to facilitate new forms of data collaboration to tackle the harms of money laundering, while protecting citizens’ privacy.”

Alondra Nelson, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said: “Data can be marshalled to make life easier and more just. But too often, powerful data tools are instead used to deepen inequality and threaten our most basic freedoms. The PETs prize challenges seek to close that gap and demonstrate how these tools can be used responsibly to achieve their potential across many areas – from improving access to healthcare and addressing the climate crisis, to advancing financial security and ending human trafficking.

“This important initiative is an expression of our shared vision: a world where our technologies reflect our values and innovation opens the door to solutions that make us more secure.”

With UN estimates suggesting the amount of cross-border money laundering is about $2tn a year, the UK and US governments said it was clear that information sharing and collaborative analytics among financial organisations could transform the detection of such activity, which is currently being hindered by legal, technical and ethical barriers to using data.

This, they said, was clearly a challenge upon which PETs can be brought to bear. For the first challenge, innovators will explore the use of federated learning – which enables machine learning models to be trained on high-quality datasets without the data leaving a safe environment – to share and analyse financial information while preserving its fundamental privacy.

Ultimately, this could allow suspicious behaviour that might indicate financial crime is taking place to be identified, and stopped, without compromising the privacy of individuals – for example, bank customers – or transferring their data outside of their financial services provider, or into the jurisdiction of a foreign state.

As part of this challenge, innovators will also get to engage with US and UK regulators, including the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and the US’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), to overcome uncertainty about the regulatory implications of using PETs.

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