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New multi-million-pound centre to protect citizens online

Professor of Cyber Security at the University of Bristol, Awais Rashid, is Director of the new Research Centre on Privacy, Harm Reduction and Adversarial Influence Online.

Press release issued: 14 October 2020

The University of Bristol will lead a team of the UK’s world-leading cyber security experts in the creation of a new, £8.6 million centre to protect citizens online.

The interdisciplinary team includes experts from the Universities of Bristol, Bath, Edinburgh, King’s College London and UCL , across a wide range of fields including - but not limited to - Computer Science, Law, Psychology and Criminology.

The digital sector is worth £400m/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.

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.

With innovations such as smart cities, the Internet of Things (IoT) and mobile connectivity leading to approximately 5.3Bn 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 – £2.5m 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,” said Professor Rashid.

Dr Asma Vranaki, Lecturer in Law at the University of Bristol and Policy and Regulation lead for REPHRAIN, said:

“ Through its world-leading interdisciplinary research, REPHRAIN will identify and address the wide-range of online harms which citizens encounter in today’s data-driven economy including cyber-crime, disinformation, unlawful use of personal information, opaque data processing and weak data privacy rights.

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.”

Further information

REPHRAIN - Research Centre on Privacy, Harm Reduction and Adversarial Influence Online

Director: Professor Awais Rashid, University of Bristol
Deputy Director: Professor Madeline Carr, UCL

Leadership Team:

Co-leads, Mission 1 - Deliver privacy at scale while mitigating its misuse to inflict harms: Professor Adam Joinson, University of Bath; Dr Tariq Elahi, University of Edinburgh
Co-leads, Mission 2 - Minimise harms while maximising benefits from a sharing-driven digital economy: Dr Steven Murdoch, UCL; Dr Jose Such, King’s College London
Co-leads, Mission 3 - Balance individual agency vs. social good: Dr Mark Cote, King’s College London; Professor Emiliano De Cristofaro, UCL

Design & Engagement Lead: Professor Danae Stanton Fraser, University of Bath
Adoption & Adoptability Lead: Dr Bettina Nissen, University of Edinburgh
Responsible, Inclusive & Ethical Innovation Lead: Dr Emma Williams, University of Bristol
Policy & Regulation Lead: Dr Asma Vranaki, University of Bristol

In February 2020 UKRI launched a call to establish a UK Research Centre of Excellence for Protecting Citizens Online, with an investment of £8.6m (at full economic cost) over a three-year period. Of this, up to £2m will be utilised to enhance the capability of the Centre (e.g. funding additional research projects, widening the pool of investigators, data access etc.).

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