Researchers from the University of Bath will join a team of experts in computer science, law, psychology and criminology from the Universities of Bristol, Edinburgh, King’s College London and University College London (UCL) in a new research centre which will aim to help protect people from online harm.

REPHRAIN - Research Centre on Privacy, Harm Reduction and Adversarial Influence Online - will consolidate the UK’s considerable academic, industry, policy and third sector capabilities, and led by Bristol, will provide a single body to engage with government, industry and citizens.

The digital sector is worth £400 million per day to the UK economy (7.7% of GVA) - growing six times faster than all other sectors combined. However, alongside the many positive benefits of a data-driven economy, serious challenges, such as privacy violations, micro-targeting of individuals, online abuse/victimisation, fraud and disinformation, have emerged.

With innovations such as smart cities, the Internet of Things (IoT) and mobile connectivity leading to approximately 5.3 billion Internet users globally, there is an urgent need to protect citizens online and ensure the benefits far outweigh the risks.

The centre will achieve this through three key mechanisms:

  • Development of a REPHRAIN Map of privacy, harm and adversarial influence – developed during the first 6 months and regularly updated to provide a co-created and shared understanding of the landscape.

  • Creation of a REPHRAIN Toolbox – a one-stop shared set of resources for researchers, practitioners, policymakers, regulators and citizens – providing a world-first Privacy Enhancing Technologies (PETs) testbed, datasets, benchmarks, reference scenarios and validated novel tools, methods and prototypes.

  • Capability Fund – £2.5 million to grow REPHRAIN’s capabilities and outputs to enhance the UK’s capacity in protecting citizens online.

Awais Rashid, Professor of Cyber Security at the University of Bristol and Director of REPHRAIN, said:

“The Internet has provided a range of innovative ways to come together, share information and engage with each other across the globe. However, this large-scale information sharing has also highlighted a range of harms – from child abuse to hate campaigns and the spread of disinformation.

“The urgency of new scientific advances to protect citizens from a variety of harms without stifling data-driven innovation is highlighted by the COVID-19 crisis. We have a pressing need for data-sharing to track and contain the pandemic, whilst preserving privacy and preventing spread of disinformation through global scale social networks.

“It’s a challenge that spans all areas of our lives and one that we are ready to tackle, by bringing together the greatest minds in the country, across a whole range of disciplines."

Professor Adam Joinson, from the University of Bath’s School of Management, will co-lead the mission entitled Delivering Privacy at Scale While Mitigating Misuse to inflict harms. “REPHRAIN gives us an opportunity to bring together some of our world-leading experts at the University of Bath to look at the range of harms that can be experienced through the Internet, and importantly to develop and test in a controlled setting ways to mitigate and reduce those harms,” he said.

“This work will be essential to any effort to regulate Internet service providers because only when we can define and measure the harm caused by, for instance, disinformation, can we begin to test the impact of techniques to address those harms.”

Professor Danaë Stanton Fraser, from Bath’s Department of Psychology, who is Design & Engagement lead for REPHRAIN, said: “Our team at Bath includes [Dr Laura Smith]( from Psychology and Dr David Ellis from Management. Together we will be designing and carrying out experimental work which ranges from applying innovative methods to understand the impact of online harm mitigation strategies through simulated environments to studies exploring realistic avatars and how they can be designed to support self-expression and community, while minimising potential harm."

The Centre will develop innovative and holistic regulatory and policy approaches to reduce online harms which empower citizens and provide policymakers, regulators and industry with evidence-based guidelines, recommendations and solutions to tackle harmful digital activities.

“Now is the time for research into how privacy-enhancing technologies can help prevent banking and other types of financial fraud,” said industry partner, OneSpan’s Chief Technology Evangelist, Benoit Grangé.

“We look forward to collaborating with other industry leaders in this new consortium to augment technologies like machine learning and further advance transparency and privacy in fraud prevention.”

The centre will support 25 inaugural projects, to take place at the five founding UK universities and stakeholder organisations, to conduct valuable further research in this area.

REPHRAIN is supported by £7 million of funding from UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) Strategic Priorities Fund