Privacy-preserving tech is key to unlocking the true potential of data 

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At IBM, we have long understood that trust and transparency are fundamental to realizing the full potential of the digital economy.  In fact, we were the first major tech company to appoint a Chief Privacy Officer more than 20 years ago – even then recognizing that the potential for “e-business” (as we called it at the time) to capture and analyze massive amounts of data in order to better serve individuals raised concerns about the disclosure or exploitation of personal information. 
 
On this Data Privacy Day, as I reflect back on a year where the balance between the potential benefits to be derived from data sharing and the protection of fundamental rights like privacy and security have been put to the test, I’m proud to say that IBM remains true to its principles.  We remain focused on using technology responsibly to respond to and recover from the COVID-19 public health crisis, deploying first-of-a-kind privacy preserving technologies to support data sharing within and between enterprises, and imbuing ethical principles and practices throughout our company and the technologies we choose to design and deploy – and those we choose not to.  
 
Our Pandemic Response
 
Early in the pandemic – under the guidance of our AI Ethics Board which I co-chair – IBM adopted firm privacy-focused guardrails that dictate how we will, and will not, apply our technology in the pandemic response.  As a company, we’ve worked with partners, clients and governments to use our expertise in ways that make a meaningful difference, while modeling the promise of what we call “good tech.”  
 
An example of good tech that you may be hearing more about in upcoming months, the IBM Digital Health Pass, is a virtual wallet that allows individuals to maintain control of their personal health information and share it in a way that is secured, verifiable, and trusted. Built on the IBM Cloud, the Health Pass uses blockchain technologies to enable organizations to verify health credentials for employees, customers and visitors. It provides a smart way to bring people into a physical location, such as a workplace, school, stadium or airline flight without requiring exposure of underlying personal data.  
 
It goes without saying that technologies like the Digital Health Pass could play a vital role in upcoming months and years as we return to the office, board flights for business and personal travel, and even look to enjoy a meal again at our favorite neighborhood restaurant.
 
Confidential Computing
 
We also know the pandemic has forced many organizations to accelerate their planned digital transformations as they move more of their sensitive data and computing workloads to the cloud.  This has resulted in more questions about the security of data as it migrates to the cloud – and sometimes across borders.
 
There is some basis for these questions. For years, cloud providers could only offer encryption services that protected data “at rest” and “in transit,” leaving data “in use” vulnerable.  But we’ve been working on this as well at IBM. We achieved a real breakthough with our “confidential computing” capability. Confidential computing continuously encrypts data throughout the entire computing lifecycle, including when it is being processed in memory. This holistic approach to data protection opens up exciting new possibilities for global collaboration and successfully addresses some of the concerns about the migration of data across borders.
 
Leadership on AI Ethics
 
So much of data privacy is now centered on AI. IBM was an AI pioneer and recognized early the need to put people and values at the center of the technology. Today, we are a leader in advancing global progress in the fast-growing field of AI Ethics, and we recognize now, as we recognized in the era of “e-business”, the concerns that have been raised around this technology. That’s why we’ve expanded the role of Chief Privacy Office to include the mission of AI Ethics.  
 
We know from experience that driving responsible AI is a bigger challenge than any one organization can tackle on its own. That’s why I’m proud that my CEO, Arvind Krishna, today announced at “digital” Davos that he will co-chair the Global AI Action Alliance. To help advance the group’s work, IBM will contribute its approach to AI Ethics as a resource for others and provide consulting know-how and expertise for organizations who want to implement it.
 
Arvind’s work on the Global AI Action Alliance is only the latest step we’ve taken to advance the cause of good tech. We are working with industry and stakeholders on the technical and governance standards to lay out a clear path for the responsible and ethical deployment of AI, through initiatives such as the EU High Level Expert Group on AI, the Vatican’s Rome Call for AI Ethics, and the Notre Dame-IBM Tech Ethics Lab, to name a few. 
 
The New Administration
 
We’ve also called for governments to step up their efforts in the area of data privacy and AI Ethics. For example, we’ve long advocated for a national privacy law in the U.S.  Such a law would afford consumers protections around transparency and data control, particularly as COVID-19 credentialing solutions are being rolled out. It would also serve as the bedrock of our expanding digital infrastructure that has kept us all connected during this pandemic. 
 
IBM supports President Biden’s call to modernize our country’s infrastructure.  We have specifically called for the expansion of broadband and investment in digital infrastructure, including smart grid and smart water initiatives.  Let’s have a privacy law along with these investments to ensure remote sensing, remote monitoring, remote medicine, remote learning and remote work is done by good tech in a privacy-first manner.
 
The events of 2020 have also reminded us of some deeply rooted disparities in society. I believe that good tech – including data that is secure, privacy protected, flowing across borders, and being applied in responsible AI systems – can be a force for good to combat systemic racism in America, to increase economic opportunities in all pockets of our globe, and to help predict and prevent the next crisis. 
 
To have the power of data and AI applications be a force for good, we must continue to expand the number and reach of programs that provide training and education for in-demand data and AI skills development; we must prioritize research funding for AI testbeds that have diverse representation, including minority-serving institutions, and we must continue to fight for racial justice. IBM has voiced its support for new federal policies on all of these.
 
IBMers have long understood that our values are critical to distinguishing our company as a global leader in trusted tech. As we work to build a better and more prosperous future for all, IBM is committed to maintaining and promoting the highest ethical and data protection standards. As IBM’s Chief Privacy Officer, my mission is to help IBM ensure that open, transparent and explainable privacy practices are built into everything we do, and it is my honor to carry this mission into its third decade of leadership.
 

By Christina Montgomery, IBM Vice President & Chief Privacy Officer

 
 

 

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