The era of data proliferation brings both opportunities and challenges, especially for organizations in the federal sector charged with safeguarding national security and the well-being of their citizens. In this Q&A, Ellison Anne Williams, Founder and CEO of Enveil, explains how Privacy Enhancing Technologies are helping shape the future of data privacy within the federal landscape.
How would you define Privacy Enhancing Technologies (PETs) and their significance for federal organizations?
Privacy Enhancing Technologies, or PETs, are a family of advanced technologies uniquely able to ensure the privacy and security of data while it’s being used or processed. In today’s digital economy, it is critical to protect data at every stage of its lifecycle: Data at Rest (when it's stored), Data in Transit (while it moves through the network), and Data in Use (during processing when users are leveraging data to extract insights). The last segment, protecting Data in Use, is where PETs add unique value.
PETs enable data to be processed outside of trusted environments while safeguarding sensitive data as well as the user’s interest. In the public sector, we often say that PETs facilitate “Trusted Compute in Untrusted Locations,” meaning that organizations can extract insights from data they don’t own or control without compromising security.
Further, PETs empower federal users to break down data usage barriers, operate across security boundaries and organizational silos, and gain insights from data without compromising mission objectives. With the ever-increasing threats of cyberattacks and data breaches, PETs represent a paradigm shift in how data can be securely leveraged. Public sector entities handle vast amounts of sensitive data, and PETs provide essential tools to unlock value from such assets while preserving privacy and security.
Why are the data usage challenges faced by federal users unique?
Public sector data users operate in a landscape where collaboration and speed to insight are critical, but security cannot be compromised. The stakes are incredibly high as these organizations manage a vast array of sensitive interests, spanning from intelligence to citizens' health records. In such environments, even a single exposure can have far-reaching consequences for national security and erode public trust. PETs play a pivotal role in addressing the data usage risk associated with these challenges.
The benefits of PETs go far beyond risk management; they offer federal agencies significant opportunities to improve decision making by allowing them to securely collaborate and extract insights from a broad range of data sources. PETs provide a clear pathway for federal agencies to harness the power of data analytics, Artificial Intelligence, and Machine Learning, without risking data exposure or misuse. This means that users can engage in necessary data sharing and collaboration with the confidence that their sensitive data, interests, and mission intent will remain protected.
What are some real-world examples of how PETs are transforming federal operations?
Privacy Enhancing Technologies are not just on the horizon—they're here, actively shaping the data usage and collaboration in the federal sector today. PETs enable agencies to securely analyze data without exposing their sensitive interests to unintended audiences, engineering trust and facilitating more effective information sharing and mission-critical collaboration. One notable example is a use case in which Defense and Intelligence Community agencies need to securely and privately leverage third-party and open source datasets without exposing mission-critical information to the data owner or any other party. This level of secure collaboration was not previously possible and it empowers federal agencies to leverage valuable commercially-available data sources without increasing organizational risk of compromising mission objectives.
PETs are catalysts for mission advancement, empowering agencies to securely and collaboratively use data across security and organizational boundaries and equipping them to overcome some of the most complex data challenges faced by public sector organizations today.
What are the primary challenges to integrating PETs within the federal sector?
Navigating the complexities of the federal landscape to introduce new technologies, such as PETs, is not always a simple plug-and-play. The challenges are multifaceted. First and foremost, many federal entities are intertwined with legacy systems, which aren’t always malleable to the latest advancements. This is compounded by budgetary constraints and complicated contract pathways that don't always align with the immediate adoption of the latest tech.
There is also a human element involved that should not be underestimated. Often, there's a natural apprehension to embracing what may be perceived as novel technology. This stems from a lack of understanding of the capabilities and benefits of the technology itself as well as the cultural implications of disrupting the status quo.
With these challenges comes opportunity — and this is where collaboration between private sector technology companies and federal agencies can make a significant difference. Public-private partnerships, along with broad education efforts, can help successfully bridge knowledge gaps, champion pilot programs, and facilitate the adoption of advanced technologies, such as PETs, for federal efforts. It is a journey, but with collective efforts focused on the long-term impact that transformational technologies can have on mission outcomes, the vast potential can be fully realized.
We’ve seen a lot of global discussion recently around Secure AI — can PETs help for these use cases?
Absolutely. Privacy Enhancing Technologies can be used to deliver Secure AI capabilities by enriching existing ML models by expanding the pool of available data sources for training and evaluation. These capabilities enhance decision making, protect privacy, and combat broader legal, societal, and national security risks. In fact, their role is so critical that the Executive Order on Safe, Secure, and Trustworthy Development and Use of Artificial Intelligence recently issued by the White House specifically identifies PETs as a key enabler of Secure AI capabilities, and outlines directives to advance and drive the utilization of these transformative technologies for AI use cases.
What does the future hold for the adoption of PETs?
The future is not just promising; it's imperative. The complexity and volume of data that federal agencies need to manage will only increase in the coming years, and the role of PETs will become increasingly critical. By delivering scalable capabilities that can adapt to these changing dynamics, the adoption of PETs will redefine how federal organizations share, collaborate, and leverage sensitive information.
Emerging technology-driven trends, such as Zero Trust architectures and Quantum-safe cryptography, are pushing the boundaries of the status quo and driving requirements for more robust and nuanced methods of data protection and utilization. The adoption of PETs will converge with these approaches, leading to a transformative shift in how the federal sector manages and utilizes data.
In short, the adoption of PETs isn't just an advance; it's a paradigm-shifting transformation. Federal organizations must embrace these technologies to remain resilient in the face of evolving threats and to harness the power and speed of data to drive better, more informed decision making. The future is a landscape where data security and utility go hand in hand, and PETs are at the forefront of this evolution.