New way of keeping data private

A rare example of a new privacy technology that is getting deployed in the real world.

Researchers at Stanford have developed a new system for preserving privacy during data collection from the internet. (Image credit: Getty Images)
Researchers at Stanford have developed a new system for preserving privacy during data collection from the internet. (Image credit: Getty Images)

Numerous gadgets that are presently part of our everyday lives, we gather data about how we utilize them. But while sending information about the computer to the developer, we usually say “No,” just in case that information is too personal.

Now, just to bridge this divide, Stanford scientists have created a new system that keeps the collected data private. The system is also expected to emphasize personal privacy.

The system is dubbed as ‘Prio’ that breaks up and conceal singular data through a procedure known as “secret sharing” and considering the gathering of total reports. In this, way, Prio will never let you decipher.

Henry Corrigan-Gibbs, a graduate student in computer science who co-developed this system said, “We have an increasing number of devices – in our light bulbs, in our cars, in our toasters – that are collecting personal data and sending it back to the device’s manufacturer. More of these devices means more sensitive data floating around, so the problem of privacy becomes more important. This type of system is a way to collect aggregate usage statistics without collecting individual user data in the clear.”

Prio can handle large amounts of data and, so long as the servers never collude, the system reveals nothing other than aggregate statistics. The system can further enhance privacy by slightly perturbing the final result.

For this, scientists have developed a method whereby the system sending the data proves to the servers that a set of secret shares is well formed without revealing any information about the data that the shares encode.

Though, Prio is currently being tested by Mozilla in a version of Firefox called Nightly, which includes features Mozilla is still testing. On Nightly, Prio ran in parallel to the current remote data collection (telemetry) system for six weeks, gathering over 3 million data values. There was one glitch but once that was fixed, Prio’s results exactly matched the results from the current system.

Corrigan-Gibbs said, “To me, this is the best example of why research is exciting. You get to study these things and you get to launch them into the real world and see them have impact. This began as a fascinating theoretical problem about proof systems and zero knowledge. And then 18 months later, there are 100,000 people using it.”

A paper about Prio appeared at the 14th USENIX Symposium on Networked Systems Design and Implementation.