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UK and US seek out privacy-enhancing innovations

Image credit: Tero Vesalainen | Dreamstime

The UK and US governments have launched a set of prize challenges to accelerate the adoption and development of privacy-enhancing technologies (PETs) to combat global societal challenges.

The PETs challenges were first announced at the Summit for Democracy last year and will see innovators from academia, industry, and the broader public find new solutions in up to two separate tracks: tackling financial crime and forecasting public health emergencies.

Such challenges are based on the use of artificial intelligence (AI) tools to examine large and potentially sensitive datasets – the challenges themselves will use synthetic financial and medical data.

There will also be options for participants to design one generalised solution that works for both scenarios for broader applicability, according to the organisers of the challenges.

It comes amid concerns China is outpacing Western countries with its AI research – which some experts believe is at least, in part, hindered in the West by stricter privacy laws – as well as technical and ethical concerns.

“I’m delighted that we are launching joint UK-US prize challenges to accelerate the adoption of privacy-enhancing technologies (PETs),” said Nadine Dorries, the UK’s digital secretary.

“These cutting-edge technologies can help us harness the power of data to tackle global challenges like international money laundering and to plan for subsequent public health emergencies while respecting citizens’ rights,” she added.

Dorries said that the partnership will show the UK and US’s commitment to working together to address transnational challenges, “as well as to ensuring that our vision of the tech revolution – one that is open and democratic – prevails”.

Competing for cash prizes from a combined UK-US prize pool of $1.6m (£1.3m), innovators will develop privacy-preserving federated learning solutions that enable AI models to be trained on sensitive data without organisations having to reveal, share, or combine their raw data.

Winning solutions from the new challenges will be showcased at the second Summit of Democracy, whereby US President Joe Biden plans to convene in the first half of 2023.

The first challenge set out will help tackle international money laundering, which the United Nations estimates costs up to $2tn (£1.7tn) annually, undermining economic prosperity and financing organised crime.

Experts believe organisations can harness PETs to facilitate privacy-preserving financial information sharing and collaborative analytics, allowing anomalous payments to be identified without compromising the privacy of individuals.

The second track of the challenges about medical data could allow nations to bolster their pandemic response capabilities, potentially enabling health services to forecast an individual’s risk of infection without imposing on that person’s privacy.

Innovators on this track will have access to a synthetic dataset created by the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute, which represents a digital twin of a regional population.

“We are on the cusp of solving some of the world’s most intractable problems and improving our quality of life with the power of AI, but we must do it responsibly by upholding our shared values around privacy,” said US secretary of commerce Gina Raimondo.

“I’m thrilled that we’re launching these joint UK-US privacy-enhancing technology prize challenges and motivating our best researchers in industry and academia to innovate on protecting privacy so that we can all reap the benefits,” she added.

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