Cybernetica, Eurostat develop privacy-preserving approach for computing sensitive data

  • 2022-02-10
  • BNS/TBT Staff

TALLINN – Estonian company Cybernetica and Eurostat have demonstrated the feasibility of leveraging secure computation technologies to produce aggregate statistics from mobile network operator data while preserving the anonymity of mobile phone users.

The project, ideated and contracted by Eurostat, relied on Cybernetica's secure computation technology Sharemind. The developed solution allows the processing of data sets from one or more organizations without exposing any individual data points, thus preserving the confidentiality of the data sets and the privacy of the individuals, Cybernetica said in a press release on Thursday.

The project relied on synthetic data to demonstrate the scalability of the adopted technological solution and its suitability to process location data from mobile network operators. In addition to technological aspects, the project involved a study by Cybernetica's experts on the legal aspects related to this type of data processing.

The project results lay the foundation for conducting statistical analysis on real personal data in future pilot projects.

The project promotes transparency in the process of reusing citizens' data held by private companies for public purposes. It also shows that organizations can successfully compute public statistics without having to share or lose control of sensitive data.

Dan Bogdanov, head of the information security research institute at Cybernetica and the creator of Sharemind, said the Eurostat project clearly shows that secure computing is no longer just a "research lab" playground, but is fully applicable in real-world production scenarios today.

"Our service model, where we combine technology and legal assessment, opens up new uses for existing data, while protecting data confidentiality and fundamental rights to privacy. For example, in statistics the developed solution can be used for computing aggregate density and mobility patterns of the entire population, thus providing valuable input for policy making and other public purposes, without disclosing any information about individuals," Bogdanov said.

Fabio Ricciato, who ideated and managed the project in Eurostat, said that secure computing technologies have enormous potential for the future of official statistics. Statistical offices are seeking to reuse an increasing range of new data sources collected by other entities for the production of new and better statistics, including but not limited to location data from mobile network operators.

"I think that secure computing technologies will become the 'new normal' in all fields where information needs to be distilled by the combination of data held across different organizations. With this project, Eurostat has taken the first step in this direction. Thanks to this project we have a better understanding of what the technology can offer and what are the challenges for prospective adopters of these technologies," said Ricciato.

The research for Eurostat was conducted in 2020-2021.