A report from the Royal Society is calling for public sector institutions, including the NHS, to lead the way in piloting Privacy Enhancing Technologies (PETs) that could unlock ‘lifesaving’ data without compromising privacy.

PETs encompass a whole suite of tools, such as a new generation of encryption and synthetic data. These could help deliver significant public benefits by reducing the risks inherent to data use.

The Royal Society report, ‘From privacy to partnership’, highlights cases that could achieve this, with healthcare noted as a key use case.

The report notes the industry’s technological advances, comprehensive electronic patient records (EPR) and a strong academic research base which will also help support this unlocking of data.

The report says: “The UK is well positioned to deliver timely and impactful health research and its translation to offer more effective treatments, track and prevent public health risks, utilising health data to improve and save lives”.

It notes that, to date, adoption of PETs has been limited and is calling on public bodies to work in partnership with small-and-medium-sized enterprises to champion them. In addition, it also recommends the UK government establish a “national strategy for the responsible use of PETs”.

This strategy could include establishing common standards for PETs, as well as bursaries and prizes to incentivise and accelerate development of a marketplace for their application.

Chair of the report’s working group, Professor Alison Noble, Technikos professor of biomedical engineering, University of Oxford, said: “PETs are already revolutionising the way data is used, from enabling greater cross-analysis between organisations to fuelling AI in medical diagnostics.

“But public trust is a fundamental component of responsible data use and can be easily undermined through hasty implementation or poor communication.

“Now is the time to agree standards and best practice for PETs adoption to ensure these technologies are used for the greatest public benefit, without compromising the data rights of individuals.

“Not only do we need a national PETs strategy, but the public sector should lead by example by trialling and communicating results to the wider public to build trust and demonstrate value for money.”

In light of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) seeking feedback last year on its draft anonymisation, pseudonymisation and privacy enhancing technologies guidance, Paul Affleck, research programme manager at the University of Leeds and GP Dr Imran Khan, explored when health data is anonymous.