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Exciting national partnerships embolden plans to keep people safe online

Press release issued: 2 November 2021

A University of Bristol led-research centre set up to protect people online will kick-start eight new projects which includes clamping down on unlicensed COVID-19 activity and preventing online recruitment that aids human trafficking.

REPHRAIN National Research Centre on Privacy, Harm Reduction and Adversarial Influence Online focuses on protecting citizens online while allowing them to safely engage in digital technologies.

It’s mission was bolstered by supporting commissioned projects worth almost £750,000 in partner institutions as part of the research activity. The REPHRAIN centre is very excited to announce these new projects, some of which particular are highly relevant to current issues impacting society. These include:

  • Unlicensed Covid-19 vaccines and test certificates on the net: Identifying and preventing online harms
  • Privacy-at-Ransom Testbed (PART): addressing potential privacy-damaging risks arising from ransomware and ransomware-defences
  • Key2Kindness: An adaptive cross-platform “in the moment” hate speech detection and awareness mechanism
  • PORTAS: Prevention of Online Recruitment into Human Trafficking

The COVID-19 project based at the University of Hertfordshire aims to investigate the harms posed by the recent and unprecedented availability of unlicensed COVID-19 vaccines, fake test certificates and other related goods and services online. This investigation will shed new light on the motivation behind these high-risk behaviours, whilst influencing appropriate regulatory measures and more targeted interventions, in order to protect the safety and wellbeing of vulnerable individuals, wider society and government initiatives during a significantly challenging time globally.

The University of Strathclyde’s PART project will study the three-way dynamics between storage Private Enhancing Technologies, ransomware, and ransomware defences. It will explore how ransomware holds privacy to ransom and look at suitable defences by building a testbed to do so.

Key2Kindness, led by University of Northumbria at Newcastle, looks at the finality of the damage caused once a hateful or harmful message has been sent as it often can’t be unsent or unseen. The harm to the receiver, and potentially the sender, is already sealed.  The project aims to understand whether a mobile phone keyboard could be designed to provide guidance and support to people as they type, and to notify them of any harmful content contained within the message in order to reduce the likelihood of them pressing send.

The PORTAS project at the University of Ulster will focus on the recruitment phase of human trafficking, where organised crime groups (OCGs) first make contact with vulnerable people online using advertisements for bogus job opportunities.

The project will automatically scan employment recruitment websites that focus on particular employment sectors, extracting and analysing information from the advertisements, developing methods to distinguish between genuine recruitment advertisements and those placed by OCGs. This will lead to the development of a tool that can alert law enforcement agencies to the presence of online criminal activity and initiate the investigation and prosecution of OCGs and support the many international NGOs who work with vulnerable groups to educate people to protect themselves.

Awais Rashid, Director of REPHRAIN, said: "Online harms arising from privacy violations and victimisation of citizens pose a major challenge for our society. The new projects funded by REPHRAIN tackle some of the most critical challenges in this regard - from protecting victims of human trafficking and domestic violence through to countering hate speech and mitigating the harmful impacts of medical misinformation online.

“Digital technologies pervade our lives and we derive immense benefits from the connectivity and services they deliver. This new tranche of projects ensures that we also continue to tackle the misuses of such technologies and empower citizens to protect themselves and their privacy online."

In its creation, REPHRAIN conceived 25 inaugural projects from its five founding institutions  University of Bristol, University of Bath, University of Edinburgh, University College London and King’s College London to protecting citizens online. These outcomes will be collated and made available via the REPHRAIN Toolbox, addressing a comprehensive set of harms.

Further information

A full list of funded projects can be found here:


Project academic partners:



University of Bath

Kings College London

University of Edinburgh

University of Hertfordshire

University of Strathclyde

University of Northumbria

University of Ulster

University of Glasgow

Coventry University

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