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European Commission joins government networks to promote new privacy technologies

October 23, 2007

Three of the government's knowledge transfer networks (KTNs) have joined forces with the European Commission to support the development of new Privacy Enhancing Technologies (PETs) which aim to address public concerns over online privacy. This will place the onus on industry to build products which give users control over how their data is used.

These organisations are bringing European technology companies, academics, and government departments together for a critical meeting in London on 21 November in Westminster. They will consider what these future technologies will look like, how they will work and who will develop them. The outcomes will be taken into consideration by the Commission and may influence where it focuses funding for research into privacy and technology.

PETs is the name given to a family of emerging hardware and software products identified by the European Commission as a preferred way to make it easier for people to protect their privacy. They will be designed in a way which promotes their integration into products and services during the design phase. This removes the need for users to worry about complicated setup procedures and makes them simple and convenient to use. PETs will also be developed to empower individuals, giving them easier access to, and control over information about them, allowing them to decide how and when it can be disclosed and used.

Examples of potential PETs:
  • Encrypted biometric access systems that allow the use of a fingerprint to authenticate an individual's identity, but do not retain the actual fingerprint;
  • 'Sticky' electronic privacy policies that are attached to the information itself preventing it being used in any way that is not compatible with that policy.
  • Software that allows browsers to automatically detect the privacy policy of websites and compares it to the preferences expressed by the user, highlighting any clashes
"The goal is to increase consumer confidence and protection without losing the undeniable benefits from existing and emerging technologies," explains Sally Purdie, director of the Location and Timing KTN, one of the government networks leading the collaboration. "Today's approach to privacy is often to develop technologies based on the needs of the supplier not the user. But things are changing. Users are the ones making demands and their right to control their own information is taking precedence. As more new services and products are available to consumers and business, PETs present a way to both avoid the 'just in time' approach to supplier privacy management and to place more power to control data privacy in the hands of the customer."

The KTN and the Commission also suggest an answer to some of the most prevalent privacy issues could provide an opportunity for the emergence of a valuable new market of tools which use privacy control as a unique selling point. In the near future, we may see a range of new products offered with 'privacy inside', which allow customers to define their own rules and exercise their unique level of privacy control. These could be based on the integration of emerging technologies such as GPS and other location-based systems.

Yet to appear as real products, PETs still require considerable research and development before they start to play a role in our online experiences. Ensuring that research follows a focused path relies on the input of a range of parties says the European Commission.

"The challenge for PETs is that they must accommodate requirements from a variety of groups - technology developers, service providers, organisations receiving and storing data, regulators and, in particular, the needs of users," suggests Jacques Bus, head of the unit responsible for funding related research at the European Commission. "We must make sure that every Euro of research funding is carefully targeted at the most promising technologies. But first we must identify which ideas for future PETs are likely to be most useful and address the broadest needs. Only then can we target research in these areas."

To this end, the government networks involved (the Location and Timing KTN, the Sensors KTN and the Cyber Security KTN) together with the European Commission are hosting a meeting in London during November at which prominent European academics, government representatives and industrialists will help define PETs and potentially influence future European funding in this area. 'A Fine Balance 2007' will be held on 21 November at Church House, Westminster.
To register for 'A Fine Balance 2007' please visit the website at

National Physical Laboratory

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