New £8.6m research centre to keep people safe online

UCL is a key partner in a new centre drawing together experts from computer science, psychology, law and criminology that aims to protect citizens from a range of harms online.

REPHRAIN -  Research Centre on Privacy, Harm Reduction and Adversarial Influence Online - will be led by experts from UCL and the Universities of Bristol, Bath and Edinburgh, as well as King’s College London. It is majority funded by a £7m grant from UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) Strategic Priorities Fund.

Our increasingly digital lives have thrown up challenges including privacy violations, micro-targeting of individuals, online abuse/victimisation, fraud and disinformation. With the emergence of smart cities, the Internet of Things (IoT) and mobile connectivity, there is an urgent need to protect citizens online and ensure the benefits far outweigh the risks.

Researchers will explore the differing online harms to which diverse groups of people can be exposed, the effectiveness of privacy and online safety measures, and how to balance risks while improving citizens’ ability to participate fully in the growing digital economy. 

Professor Madeline Carr (UCL STEaPP), Deputy Director of REPHRAIN, said: "We see this as the challenge of our generation and getting it right will have huge implications for the digital economy, for human rights online, and for the future potential of utilising data to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems.

We know these complex issues can only be addressed by working across disciplines and sectors, by bringing together technical experts, social scientists, industry and government - in pursuit of improving the human condition in the digital age. And we’re delighted to be leading on this with a consortium of some of the most innovative thinkers on protecting citizens online."

Dr Steven Murdoch (UCL Computer Science) is co-lead of a REPHRAIN team whose project seeks to minimise harms while maximising benefits of a sharing-driven digital economy. He said: "Online crime can cause life-changing harm to its victims, but protecting citizens from crime must not come at the cost of their privacy. The REPHRAIN project will show how to prevent online harms, while still respecting individuals’ fundamental rights."

Professor Emiliano De Cristofaro (UCL Computer Science), a team co-lead whose work will focus on balancing individual agency with social good, said: "I’m really excited to be part of this fantastic team and am very confident we will make a big difference in tackling extremely important challenges on the web such as privacy and online harms."

Measures to be developed will include a world-first Privacy Enhancing Technologies (PETs) testbed to assess the technical effectiveness and usability of measures to ensure privacy and reduce online harm. As part of the REPHRAIN Toolbox - a one-stop shared set of resources -  this testbed will allow PETs to be developed, deployed and evaluated by researchers, practitioners, policy-makers and regulators.

Researchers will also develop a map to guide citizens, policymakers and researchers on solutions to different privacy and online harm issues and to act as a blueprint for future certification of online products and services.

A capability fund will allow the centre to support the activities of academic and non-academic stakeholders beyond the founding members, growing REPHRAIN’s capabilities and outputs, further enhancing the UK’s capacity in protecting citizens online.


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