Skip to main content

Project protecting online privacy for people going through serious life events secures major funding

Protecting people from stalking, online trolls, and other serious online dangers they are exposed to when going through serious real-life events is the focus of a major new £3.44 million project involving Queen Mary University of London researchers. It is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Published on:

The unseen cybersecurity consequences of real-life traumas such as serious illness diagnoses and relationship breakdowns are the focus of the project, named Adaptive PETs to Protect & emPower People during Life Transitions (AP4L). It will develop new technologies and offer advice to policymakers to help protect the online identities of people going through life-changing events, which can also include coming out as LGBTQ+ or leaving employment in the Armed Forces.

The multi-partner project, led by the University of Surrey, will begin its work on 1 April 2022.

Gareth Tyson, Senior Lecturer at Queen Mary University of London and one of the project authors said: “For entirely understandable reasons, people going through life-changing moments can sometimes forget about online privacy and how it might open them up to harassment or other extremely unpleasant experiences.

“Through this work we want to develop the right tools and technology to give these people the protection, comfort, and peace of mind they deserve. We are aiming to make online protection and privacy as straightforward and secure as possible in these difficult periods of their lives.”

Professor Nishanth Sastry, Principal Investigator of AP4L from the University of Surrey, said: "A common refrain I hear when people talk about online security is that their lives are boring and therefore there is nothing that can be exploited. I am afraid, in my experience, that is simply not true; the majority of us have a vast amount of personal data that, in the wrong hands, could be dangerous if circumstances change.

"AP4L is about giving ordinary people back control of their online lives --- whether they are going through a break-up and would like to ensure their location data is not available anywhere online or they have just been diagnosed with a serious illness, and they don't want everyone on their social channels to know."

Queen Mary will be working alongside the University of Surrey and others to develop new privacy-enhancing technologies (PETs) that could help people manage crucial moments of their lives. Along with the PETs, the team is looking to establish:

  • "Risk Playgrounds" workshops to build resilience by helping people explore potentially risky interactions of life transitions with privacy settings across their digital footprint in safe ways.
  • "Transition Guardians" who will provide real-time protection for users during life transitions.
  • "Security Bubbles" which will promote connection by bringing people together who can help each other (or who need to work together) during a person's major event.

Professor Steve Schneider, Director of Surrey Centre for Cyber Security at the University of Surrey, said: "With the growing dominance of social media on our day-to-day lives, it's clear within the cyber security community that we must do all we can to protect people during their most difficult and sensitive moments.

"Along with computer security experts, I am delighted to see a combination of thinkers from across business, law, psychology, behavioural science, and criminology lending their expertise in an effort that could help us all create a healthier relationship with the internet."

AP4L will work with 26 core partners spanning law enforcement such as Surrey Police, technology companies like Facebook and IBM, and support networks including the LGBT Foundation and Revenge Porn Helpline. Impact will be delivered through various activities, including a specially commissioned BBC series on online life transitions to share knowledge with the public.

Back to top