Technology to protect online privacy during major life transitions | Media Pyro


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Technology designed to help people manage their online privacy during major life changes is being developed as part of cyber security research involving the University of Strathclyde.

The three-year, £3.4m project will create three privacy-enhancing technologies (PETs) to help people cope with significant life changes such as relationship break-ups, developing a serious illness, being discharged from the armed forces or coming out as LBGTQ+.

Experts in cybersecurity, psychology, law, business and criminology will collaborate on a project called AP4L (Adaptive PETs to Protect & emPower People during Life Transitions). It is led by the University of Surrey and partners include the Universities of Chester, Edinburgh, Cambridge and Queen Mary University of London.

PET, which will be developed as part of the project:

  • Risk Playgrounds that will build resilience by helping people safely explore potentially risky life-changing interactions with privacy settings in their digital footprint.
  • Transition Guardians that will provide real-time protection for users during life transitions
  • Safety bubbles that will foster connection, bringing together people who can help each other or need to work together when one person’s life is changing, while providing additional safeguards to protect everyone involved.

The project has received £3.44 million from the EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council), of which Strathclyde is receiving £600,812.

Professor Wendy Moncourt, from Strathclyde’s Department of Computer and Information Sciences, is the university’s project leader. She said: “Governing privacy online is becoming increasingly difficult. There is a lot to reveal about ourselves to a huge and invisible audience, unless we are experts in privacy settings and have the time to spare. Many people tell us that their lives are “boring” and that they don’t worry about online privacy, but when there are big life changes, there are good reasons to monitor online privacy.

“For someone going through a breakup, having geodata sharing with a partner previously enabled can lead to post-breakup stalking if privacy settings aren’t reviewed. Someone newly diagnosed with cancer may not want everyone to know their news. At a time when there are far more important things to do, the Internet requires us to become experts in privacy settings if we are to prevent this vast and invisible audience from learning our deeply personal information.

“It’s very important to understand people’s needs and vulnerabilities so that we design cybersecurity systems that work for them. Everyone goes through difficult trials in their life, so this work is relevant for everyone. We are delighted to be working with the UK’s leading charities and their service users to achieve this understanding.”

Dr Karen Renaud, Strathclyde’s human-centred security and privacy expert, said: “It is important that these technologies are easy to use and designed to maximize uptake and adoption. We will test them on a range of possible users to ensure they are fit for purpose and not just a hindrance rather than a useful tool.”

Professor Geoff Ian, from Strathclyde, said: “The importance of the research is reflected in the number of 26 major partners involved, spanning law enforcement, technology companies and leading UK charities.”

Professor Fiona Strance, director of the Strathclyde Security and Resilience Research Center and a key adviser to the project, said: “The transition from military or Crown service to civilian life and vice versa can be very stressful as a major life transition. In doing so, adapting one’s online presence and digital footprint is challenging but necessary — to protect national security, the safety of family and friends, and one’s own well-being. It’s an area ripe for research and innovation.”


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