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ICO funds first four privacy tool development projects

The UK’s privacy watchdog has begun funding innovative research into data privacy tools for children and the medical and financial sectors

The Information Commissioner’s Office has announced the first research projects to benefit from the ICO Grants Programme launched in June 2017, and is aimed at supporting independent research into new, practical tools to tackle privacy challenges facing UK citizens.

The first research projects under the programme will focus on children’s online privacy, medical data sharing and consent, and digital tools protecting pseudonymised data and personal information rights in the financial services sector.

The ICO received 117 applications which were assessed by two review panels of experts from the ICO and outside organisations.

ICO deputy commissioner Steve Wood said the first four projects chosen to benefit from the grants all support innovative solutions to key privacy challenges.

“All four projects can make a real difference to the public, and we look forward to seeing the results. We were encouraged to see how much independent thinking around privacy and data protection issues is going on.

“The ICO supports innovation, which doesn’t need to be at the expense of people’s information rights, and also has a remit of keeping abreast of new technologies and challenges, and we hope these projects will support those goals.”

The successful applicants in the first year of the programme are:

1. Digital tool to help people enforce their data protection rights

Civil society organisation the Open Rights Group is collaborating with design studio IF to create a digital tool to help individuals protect and enforce their data protection rights, particularly in the insurance and banking sectors.

It will be accessed by a web browser and will aim to set out individual rights in plain language. It is anticipated the tool will be launched around the same time as implementation of the GDPR on 25 May 2018. It will be supported by regular blogs and efforts to engage key businesses throughout its lifetime, to help improve standards of information rights practice in the financial services industry. The project has been awarded £59,581.

“We want people to be able to find out what companies know about them, and re-use their own information so they can benefit from lower bills and better services. We’ll be building tools so that people can get real benefits from their new legal rights under GDPR,” said Javier Ruiz, Open Rights Group policy director.

2. Online tool to evaluate the risk of re-identification of pseudonymised data

Imperial College London will create an online tool for both the public and organisations to evaluate the risk of re-identification of pseudonymised personal data, by assessing it via a new machine learning algorithm.

The tool is expected to enable strong public accountability for data controllers and processors because people will be able to see the level of risk in providing personal data to them. The aim is to make the data collection process safer and more transparent.

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The tool, named Harpo, will be available to all as a free resource and a “hackathon” is planned to evaluate the data collection processes taking place in the UK. Development of the algorithm will begin in early 2018 and is expected to be implemented by Autumn 2018. The project has been awarded £70,338.

“Based on cutting-edge privacy research done at Imperial, Harpo will help make large-scale data collection efforts safer and more transparent to consumers,” said Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye, head of the Computational Privacy Group at ICL’s Data Science Institute.

“More than ever, we need strong science to help us as a society to find a balance between the great potential of data for good and the right of individuals to privacy,” he said.

3. Securely sharing medical information and supporting research

Teesside University is collaborating with the Connected Health Cities project, which aims to roll out the Great North Care Record (GNCR) in the North East and Cumbria.

The project aims to create a tool for healthcare professionals to share medical information securely and to support research. The ICO will fund a project to develop and build a privacy tool for future use with the GNCR.

Interactive focus groups will provide feedback on the development of the tool, ultimately providing Connected Health Cities with a consent management system for sharing medical information. This project is set to run for 12 months, beginning in April 2018 and has been awarded £82,544.

“The aim of this research is to build and evaluate a prototype privacy tool and user interface for eliciting people's consent to provide access to their health and social records,” said Jim Longstaff, Reader in Computing at Teesside University.

“The privacy tool will provide appropriate information, options and reassurances to patients and healthcare professionals. Research results in these areas will be widely applicable to health and social care systems.”

4. Children’s online privacy

Funding is also granted to the London School of Economics (LSE) for its project looking at children’s information rights and privacy.

This will examine the evidence gaps in children’s capacity to consent, their functional skills and understanding of the commercial online environment. Research will be carried out to inform child-inclusive policies and recommendations for education.

The end result will be an online toolkit for children to increase their awareness and competency around online privacy. Evidence obtained from this project will also help parents and teachers understand what children do online and how to provide support and guidance to them. The project is due to commence in February 2018 and will run for 12 months. The award amount is still to be finalised.

“With growing concerns over children’s online privacy and the commercial uses of their data, it is vital that children’s understandings of the digital environment, their digital skills and their capacity to consent are taken into account in designing services, regulation and policy,” said Sonia Livingstone, professor of social psychology in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE.

“I’m delighted to be leading an investigation into these timely questions, in a project that aims to listen to children’s voices and develop tools to empower them better.”

Further information about the successful bids will be published in the near future on the ICO Grants Programme website. The programme will open for a second round of funding in 2018.

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