Online privacy project for people going through serious life events secures major funding

February 17, 2022

A major new £3.44 million project is being led by cybersecurity researchers at the University of Surrey to help protect people from stalking, online abuse and other serious virtual dangers. It is particularly aimed at people going through serious real-life events and is being funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

The unseen cybersecurity consequences of real-life traumas such as serious illness diagnoses and relationship breakdowns are the focus of the AP4L project, which will develop new technologies and offer advice to policymakers to help protect the online identities of people going through life-changing events, which can also include coming out as LGBTQ+ or leaving employment in the Armed Forces. The multi-partner project will begin its work on 1 April 2022.  

Professor Nishanth Sastry, Principal Investigator of AP4L from the University of Surrey, said: “A common refrain I hear when people talk about online security is that their lives are boring and therefore there is nothing that can be exploited. I am afraid, in my experience, that is simply not true; the majority of us have a vast amount of personal data that, in the wrong hands, could be dangerous if circumstances change.  

“AP4L is about giving ordinary people back control of their online lives, whether they are going through a break-up and would like to ensure their location data is not available anywhere online or they have just been diagnosed with a serious illness and they don’t want everyone on their social channels to know.” 

The University of Surrey will be working with partners from the Universities of Strathclyde, Chester, Edinburgh, Cambridge and Queen Mary University of London to develop new privacy-enhancing technologies (PETs) that could help people manage crucial moments of their lives. Along with the PETs, the team is looking to establish: 

  • Risk Playgrounds” workshops to build resilience by helping people explore potentially risky interactions of life transitions with privacy settings across their digital footprint in safe ways.  
  • “Transition Guardians” will provide real-time protection for users during life transitions.  
  • “Security Bubbles” will promote connection by bringing people together who can help each other (or who need to work together) during a person’s major event.  

Professor Steve Schneider, Director of Surrey Centre for Cybersecurity at the University of Surrey, said: “With the growing dominance of social media on our day-to-day lives, it’s clear within the cybersecurity community that we must do all we can to protect people during their most difficult and sensitive moments.” 

“Along with computer security experts, I am delighted to see a combination of thinkers from across business, law, psychology, behavioural science and criminology lending their expertise in an effort that could help us all create a healthier relationship with the internet.” 

AP4L will work with 26 core partners spanning law enforcement such as Surrey Police, technology companies (e.g. Facebook and IBM) and support networks (e.g. LGBT Foundation, Marie Curie and Revenge Porn Helpline). Impact will be delivered through various activities, including a specially commissioned BBC series on online life transitions to share knowledge with the public. 

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