I had the pleasure of attending a “Horizon Brief” organised by the Centre for the Study of Financial Innovation for Dentons. The well-informed speakers, ably chaired by Andrew Hilton (Director of the CSFI), were lawyer Dominic Grieve (previously the Attorney General and, until last week, Chair of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee), lawyer Anton Moiseienko from Royal United Services Institute Centre for Financial Crime and Security, lawyer Richard Parlour (Chairman of the EU Task Force on Cybersecurity Policy for the Financial Sector) and lawyer Antonis Patrikos from Dentons’ Privacy and Cybersecurity Practice.
Margot James, the Minister for Digital was quoted in The Daily Telegraph that the UK must “get over” privacy and cyber security fears and adopt technology such as online identities. While this Minister was advocating online identities, another Minister was ending government funding for the government’s own Verify digital identity service. And more recently another Minister has scrapped the online age verification plan that would have at least bootstrapped digital identity into the mass market.
During the questions, I noted it might seem that the government has no actual strategy. As Mr. Grieve pointed out in response to my question, there is a tension at the heart of government strategy. I will paraphrase, but the issue is that the government wants to accumulate data but the accumulation of data raises the likelihood of cyberattack. How do we deal with this tension and make progress? This point was illustrated rather well later in the week, when the Parliament’s Joint Human Rights Committee recommended that The Government should “explore the practicality and usefulness of creating a single online registry that would allow people to see, in real time, all the companies that hold personal data on them and what data they hold.”
The Chair of the Committee, the lawyer Harriet Harman, said “It should be simple to know what data is shared about individuals and it must be equally easy to correct or delete data held about us as it was to us to sign up to the service in the first place”. As far as I can see, this completely impractical, expensive and pointless mechanism for logging in to some government website to find out if you signed up for the Wetherspoons loyalty scheme will be of no benefit whatsoever. The vast majority of the population neither know nor care what the Tesco Clubcard database holds about them so long as they get money off vouchers now and then. The Committee’s concerns about privacy are real and valid (and at Consult Hyperion we share them) but their proposed solution will not address them. Apart from anything else, what will stop hackers from getting into the database, finding out that you have an account at Barclays and then using this to phone you up and asking you to transfer your money into a safe account?
I wonder if the lawyers are aware that technologists can help resolve this fundamental paradox. Having had a few years’ experience in delivering highly secure systems to the financial sector, my colleagues at Consult Hyperion are familiar with a number of cryptographic techniques – such as homomorphic encryption, cryptographic blinding, zero-knowledge proofs and verifiable credentials – that can deliver apparently paradoxical results. It is possible to store data and perform computations on it without reading it, it is possible to determine that someone is over 18 without seeing their age and it is possible to find out whether you ate at a certain restaurant without disclosing your name.
Right now, the use of these technologies is nothing more than a hygiene factor for the companies involved. But as legislation (and social pressure) steadily converts personal information into toxic waste, more and more companies will want to avoid it. Privacy will become part of the overall package that a company offers to its customers and we understand the technologies that can deliver it and how to deploy them at population scale. Give us a call – our number’s not a secret.