Maximizing data privacy: Making sensitive data secure by default

Maximizing data privacy should be on every organization’s priority list. We all know how important it is to keep data and applications secure, but what happens when access to private data is needed to save lives? Should privacy be sacrificed? Does it need to be?

maximizing data privacy

Consider the case of contact tracing, which has become a key tool in the fight to control COVID-19. It’s a daunting task greatly facilitated by collecting and analyzing real-time identity and geo-location data gathered from mobile devices—sometimes voluntarily and sometimes not.

In most societies, such as the United States and the European Union, the use of location and proximity data by governments may be strictly regulated or even forbidden—implicitly impeding the ability to efficiently contain the spread of the virus. Where public health has been prioritized over data privacy, the use of automated tracing has contributed to the ability to quickly identify carriers and prevent disease spread. However, data overexposure remains a major concern for those using the application. They worry about the real threat that their sensitive location data may eventually be misused by bad actors, IT insiders, or governments.

What if it were possible to access the data needed to get contact tracing answers without actually exposing personal data to anyone anywhere? What if data and applications could be secure by default—so that data could be collected, stored, and results delivered without exposing the actual data to anyone except the people involved?

Unfortunately, current systems and software will never deliver the absolute level of data privacy required because of a fundamental hardware flaw: data cannot be simultaneously used and secured. Once data is put into memory, it must be decrypted and exposed to be processed. This means that once a bad actor or malicious insider gains access to a system, it’s fairly simple for that system’s memory and/or storage to be read, effectively exposing all data. It’s this data security flaw that’s at the foundation of virtually every data breach.

Academic and industry experts, including my co-founder Dr. Yan Michalevsky, have known for years that the ultimate, albeit theoretical, resolution of this flaw was to create a compute environment rooted in secure hardware. These solutions have already been implemented in cell phones and some laptops to secure storage and payments and they are working, well proving the concept works as expected.

It wasn’t until 2015 that Intel introduced Software Guard Extensions (SGX)—a set of security-related machine-level instruction codes built into their new CPUs. AMD has also added a similar proprietary instruction set called SEV technology into their CPUs. These new and proprietary silicon-level command sets enable the creation of encrypted and isolated parts of memory, and they establish a hardware root of trust that helps close the data security flaw. Such isolated and secured segments of memory are known as secure enclaves or, more generically, Trusted Execution Environments (TEEs).

A broad consortium of cloud and software vendors (called the Confidential Computing Consortium) is working to develop these hardware-level technologies by creating the tools and cloud ecosystems over which enclave-secured applications and data can run. Amazon Web Services announced its version of secure enclave technology, Nitro Enclaves, in late 2019. Most recently, both Microsoft (Azure confidential computing) and Google announced their support for secure enclaves as well.

These enclave technologies and secure clouds should enable applications, such as COVID-19 contact tracing, to be implemented without sacrificing user privacy. The data and application enclaves created using this technology enable sensitive data to be processed without ever exposing either the data or the computed results to anyone but the actual end user. This means public health organizations can have automated contact tracing that can identify, analyze, and provide needed alerts in real-time—while simultaneously maximizing data privacy.

Creating or shifting applications and data to the secure confines of an enclave can take a significant investment of time, knowledge, and tools. That’s changing quickly. New technologies are becoming available that will streamline the operation of moving existing applications and all data into secure enclaves without modification.

As this happens, all organizations will be able to secure all data by default. This will enable CISOs, security professionals—and public health officials—to sleep soundly, knowing that private data and applications in their care will be kept truly safe and secure.