Cryptography: data protection in the age of big data

Like any doctor, Jacques Fellay wants to give his patients the best possible treatment. His instrument of choice is not a scalpel or stethoscope, but something much more powerful: data. All people have hidden genetic markers that could tell doctors like Fellay which people are more susceptible to diseases like AIDS or hepatitis. Such information could be used in the future to predict which patients need early treatment.

That could save lives. Only: In order to uncover the connections between genetic markers and diseases, you need data. And a great many – more than even the largest hospital has. Unfortunately, it is not easy to bring together information from different medical institutions. Because the data contains all sorts of sensitive details about people that could lead to embarrassment, discrimination, or worse. Ethical concerns of this kind are a serious obstacle for Fellay, who works at Lausanne University Hospital in Switzerland. “We have the necessary technologies and ideas,” he says. »But in most cases our project fails in compiling a sufficiently large data set.«

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This is just one example of one of the world’s greatest technological problems. The inability to securely share data hampers progress in almost everything: from detecting financial crimes to efficiently managing states to responding to disasters. But a new type of encryption now makes it possible to evaluate data volumes without a person ever seeing them. This would solve the data protection problem of Big Data – and Fellay’s patients could be among the first to benefit from it…

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