The Curious World Of Confidential Computing: Sharing Without Sharing
This piece originally appeared on Forbes.
Collective Intelligence From Concealed Data
How much do you earn?
Are you underpaid or overpaid relative to your colleagues? Ever wanted to find out? How might you do it?
You could just ask your colleagues what they earn. But you probably won’t be thanked.
I guess you could hack into your firm’s HR systems. But some firms discourage that sort of thing. So, you will probably do what everybody else does and enter your details into Glassdoor.
It turns out companies have the same problem when it comes to accessing vital information about their industry that depends on knowledge of other companies’ confidential data. But their equivalent of Glassdoor is either really expensive or simply doesn’t exist.
For example, securities firms know what stocks and bonds they’ve bought and sold, and for what prices, but what does the whole market look like? They really need to know so they can price competitively and ensure best execution for their clients. But, at the same time, their competitors don’t want them to see their confidential data. So, each firm shares their data confidentially with a market data firm, which then sells back a processed, anonymized dataset to everybody in the market.
You can find this problem everywhere you look in fact: insurers who need to share information about fraudulent claims without breaching confidentiality rules… participants in online auctions who don’t want the auctioneer to exploit knowledge of how much they’ll pay… patients who would like to contribute their records to help fight a disease but who would be devastated if information about their disease became public.
Any situation where you have to give up valuable data in order to receive some broader valuable insight back in return is probably an example of this phenomenon.
And these situations share the same problem that makes them really hard to address:
You can’t trust somebody else’s computer.
The sad reality is that if you send data to somebody else’s computer, you only have their word for what they’ll do with it. Yes… the reassuring little green padlock in your browser can give you confidence about who you’re communicating with. But it says nothing about what they’ll do with your data when you upload it.
The result is that you either don’t send the data at all or you have to introduce a neutral third-party firm into your market to provide the aggregation function that none of you trust any of the others to perform.
This, as we’ve seen, is often expensive and there isn’t always an appropriate body to perform this activity.
But what if…
What if you could be sure what somebody else’s computer will do with your data? You and your customers and competitors could benefit from the collective intelligence that arises when multiple sets of data are brought together… whilst simultaneously being assured that your own data is concealed from everybody else, including whoever is hosting the service.
You wouldn’t even need to worry who hosted the service. If this technology worked as it should, you would learn nothing you weren’t supposed to even if you controlled the physical computer performing the calculations. You could call it “collective intelligence from concealed data”.
In effect, imagine a world where the “green padlock” didn’t tell you who was processing your data, but where it told you what they were doing with it.
It turns out that this technology actually exists!
There are various forms: “homomorphic encryption” is one approach and “trusted execution environments” are another. In this article, I’m focused on the latter.
Indeed, if you’re reading this on a PC, your computer probably has this capability hidden inside it without you even knowing. But you’re probably not using it: the technology has been just too difficult for regular developers to exploit.
Well, that’s about to change.
It will soon be possible for regular software developers to build systems that can, in effect, be remotely audited. Systems where owners of extremely valuable data can independently verify what will happen with their data before they submit it. Many firms are working on variants of this vision and it will be game-changing.
This interests me because I’m CTO of the firm behind one of the most successful blockchain platforms used by businesses today. And “taming” this capability will provide a critical building block for our aspiration to transform entire industries.
To see why, we need to look back to work my team and I kicked off almost five years ago. Our work to bring the power of blockchain architectures to business led to a fundamental insight: the world now possesses the tools, technology, insight and motivation to solve problems that afflict whole markets, not just individual firms. It is now possible to build systems that enable all the firms in an industry to collaborate digitally to an extent previously unimaginable outside some special cases.
The cryptographic, consensus and distributed systems techniques embedded inside the original blockchain platforms pointed the way. And firms, such as R3 and IBM, picked up the baton and built systems like Corda, Hyperledger Fabric and others to bring these concepts into the mainstream. We made it possible to build applications that automated the processes of whole markets. We applied the “What You See Is What I See” property of blockchains to eliminate swathes of complexity and inconsistency between firms.
Bringing firms into sync about data they share in common is only one part of the puzzle, however. As we discussed above, sometimes firms in a market need to collaborate but absolutely must not share their data with each other. They need to be sure that “What You See Is Absolutely NOT What I See”!
This is why the industry has been working, for years now, to master and tame the “trusted execution”–some call it “confidential computing”–technology necessary to make the “collective intelligence from concealed data” vision a reality. You need both approaches, transparency and privacy, in your platform to cover all scenarios.
In my firm’s case, the capability we’re working on to do this is called Conclave. We feel privileged to sit alongside our peers and competitors working in the same field as members of the Confidential Computing Consortium, which is helping drive collaboration between all the firms in this field.
It’s immensely exciting to see the pieces fall into place for what could become a wholesale reimagining of how firms do business with each other.
Learn more about Conclave’s Beta Program here.