Quantum computing, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and even blockchain all win attention as emerging technologies set to improve the way we live our lives. But behind the headlines, there is a new technology that is gaining momentum and researchers among some of the world’s largest companies from Google to Facebook to NVIDIA. It could have a big, if not bigger, impact on the world — especially the world of the Internet of Things (IoT).

Most people are familiar with the Internet of Things in the way we have interconnected smart homes, whether it is a programmable thermostat like Nest, a home security camera like Ring, or a virtual assistant like Siri. But as convenient as these new smart devices are at improving our daily living, there is a huge drawback to the way most operate, especially when it comes to privacy. Barely a week goes by without a scandal over our private data being compromised.

The root of the problem stems from the fact that the data produced by these many millions of devices is stored and processed within Big Tech’s servers. This centralized control creates a huge vulnerability, or an all-too-obvious “attack vector” in technology parlance, where hacks, leaks or permissive corporate policies use and abuse our private data.

Even when people or entities do manage to own and keep their data private, it becomes cut off from the interconnected digital world and, therefore, loses much of its value. Without a way for users to use the data they generate privately, owning it does not mean much. We have been given a false choice between privacy and security on the one hand and convenience and connectivity on the other. The sacrifice is not worth it, and — thanks to confidential computing — no longer necessary.

We don’t have to accept the world this way. Confidential computing, as the name implies, is the solution that allows both people and entities to keep data confidential and still put it to use. And the good news is that it also provides the same level of convenience and the array of benefits that we have become accustomed to in IoT.

As safe as the White House

Confidential computing is all about trust. Developers in this field are seeking to accelerate the adoption of what is known as “Trusted Execution Environment” (TEE) technologies. A TEE sequesters code and data away from applications on the main operating system in order to keep them away from adversaries who may gain access to the main operating system. Or, to use an analogy from this article, if the main system is in the White House, for instance, with a variety of protections, a TEE is the bunker underneath it. Within any of these bunkers, only those entities authorized by the actual data owner can view or alter the data. This enables all sorts of applications to operate efficiently without ever needing to have direct access to data.

This goes beyond the better-known technique of anonymizing data, which just removes personal identifiers from a database. While anonymization protects privacy, it limits the usefulness of the data, whereas confidential computing secures data even as it is in use, allowing for wider application. Confidential computing protects encrypted software code and data from malicious administrators and hackers in public clouds; protects sensitive machine-learning models and enables privacy-preserving data analytics; and allows multiple parties to share confidential data sets in the cloud and conduct collaborative research.

Big Data Privacy An illustration photo shows letters composing the word "big data" in Paris, April 21, 2018. Photo: LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images

In this way, confidential computing can open up new troves of data from large public companies, such as Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft; from private companies, whether they are startups or small-and-medium-sized businesses; from government institutions and agencies; and, of course, from billions of consumers. The problem today is that the data owned by these various entities is siloed with no technical means or economic incentives to share with others. But confidential computing changes that — it allows people, businesses and institutions to share their data privately and under their own terms, such as by granting one-time, revocable access to the data.

The benefits of creating these secure data-processing bunkers can be illustrated by looking beyond the technical and conceptual to the real-world applications already emerging due to the advances of confidential computing.

Obvious beneficiaries are consumers who can now extend the control of their own data, whether it’s finances, identity, or health, to other parties without sacrificing their privacy in the process. Healthcare provides a perfect example. Until now, those attempts to provide data ownership to patients have failed to maintain privacy. Everyone wants to have privacy for their health data (think Fitbit exercise devices) but it would be valuable to take advantage of that same protected data, too.

Confidential computing squares that circle by enabling an individual or entity to share the sensitive, private data as they choose without actually providing direct access to that same data. In other words, you can now choose to provide your data to help a research program without worrying your own data will be snooped on and your privacy violated.

Win-win-win

This is a win-win-win for governments, corporations and consumers. Take the case of Project Baseline, a Google-backed project which is designed to collect health data from the general public and use it as a contact tracing web to prevent disease, particularly targeting COVID-19 right now. While the goal is grand, the project falls short in guaranteeing participants’ privacy. But add in a confidential computing component and you would have a safe way to collect the same data while instilling immediate credibility over privacy as well as encourage far more people to contribute their data to help fight the pandemic.

Public-private collaborations become more powerful when harnessed with confidential computing. Imagine the benefits of combining public transportation and traffic data with private vehicle and route data. The richness in this confidential computing data can make our cities more livable and our commutes less stressful. Or you can help solve crimes without turning your neighborhood into a surveillance state. Confidential computing means you control the private data on your home security camera and you decide if and when you will share information with law enforcement under your own terms.

Confidential computing may well be the next great technology you have never heard of. As it improves our daily lives, particularly in the sphere of IoT, and helps empower the Internet of Trusted Things, I am sure we will all be hearing a lot more about confidential computing.

(Raullen Chai is the co-founder of IoTeX, a Silicon Valley company building a technology platform for smart devices that allows users control, privacy and data ownership.)