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Privacy and online safety are focus of new UKRI research funding

Online safety research centre of excellence will look into technology to boost privacy and tackle disinformation, fake news, conspiracies and other online harms

A new research body overseeing the development of technology that boosts online privacy, tackles disinformation and increases wellbeing is to receive funding of £7m through UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI’s) Strategic Priorities Fund, alongside a number of academic projects that will benefit from a funding package of a further £22m.

The new National Research Centre on Privacy, Harm Reduction and Adversarial Influence Online (REPHRAIN) will bring together academics from the universities of Bath, Bristol, Edinburgh, King’s College London and University College London. It will formally launch at an online event on 29 October.

Caroline Dinenage, minister for digital and culture, said: “The UK’s world-renowned universities and fast-growing safety tech sector are coming up with answers to the important questions of the digital age – around privacy, security and online wellbeing.

“With this investment, we are supporting organisations to build trust in the technology of tomorrow, so people and businesses can use it to improve their lives and boost the economy.

“Add to that our forthcoming pro-innovation online harms legislation and we will give tech companies the clarity and responsibility to create safer online spaces for future generations to enjoy.”

The government said the investment formed part of efforts to support a “burgeoning” safety technology industry, which is already working on things such as automated content moderation to tackle disinformation and provide age-appropriate services to younger users.

Working alongside industry, academia and the voluntary sector, REPHRAIN will develop technologies to help human moderators tackle online disinformation and identify harms linked to online targeting and manipulation. It will also operate a new privacy enhancing technologies (PETs) test site to put new privacy systems through their paces.

Its £7m funding pot will be split three ways. The CLARITI project will explore fake news and conspiracy theories, seeking to establish how and why people engage with such things, with a view to using automated agents to ease the burden on human moderators of digital platforms. The NEWS project will ask whether an individual’s engagement with online news can be used to predict their personality and establish more evidence around the online harms that are possible through targeted digital manipulation. The third project, QUERTY, will develop privacy mechanisms for sequential data, such as location data and activity logs, and find out how to get benefit from this data while protecting the source.

The other projects funded through the scheme, which will all be delivered via the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), are:

  • CAMERA 2.0 at the University of Bath, using 3D cameras and artificial intelligence (AI) to deliver education and training in virtual environments, for example in sports training or complex engineering tasks.
  • The Centre for Digital Citizens at the Universities of Newcastle and Northumbria, exploring how to better enable digital citizenship by using shared data to inform public health, community engagement, and technology-enhanced learning.
  • The Horizon Institute at the University of Nottingham, exploring how to build consumer trust around the use of their data in blended physical and virtual environments.
  • The Centre for the Decentralised Digital Economy at the University of Surrey, exploring how the platforms that underpin the peer-to-peer digital economy might be enhanced by emerging technologies, such as AI or blockchain, and made more accessible.
  • The Future Places Centre at the University of Lancaster, exploring how the internet of things (IoT) can help people adapt their immediate environments to live more healthily and sustainably.

EPSRC executive chair Lynn Gladden said: “New and emerging digital technologies will have a profound impact on many aspects of our lives, from our health and wellbeing to our work and leisure time.

“The investment announced today will not only support new ways of capitalising on this opportunity, but will also help to ensure that those using these new technologies are safe while doing so.”

Read more about online harms

  • Select committee calls for tech giants to be held responsible for the harm done to individuals, wider society and democratic processes through online misinformation.
  • The Law Commission wants to change the criminal law around communications offences to better protect victims from harmful online behaviour.
  • Online misinformation about Covid-19 continues to spread unchecked, according to a DCMS committee report which has accused the government of dragging its feet over online harms.

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