Project to tackle ransomware attacks receives funding from national research centre for online safety

A woman sitting at computer screens

A Strathclyde-led project to help keep people safe online has received funding from the REPHRAIN National Research Centre on Privacy, Harm Reduction and Adversarial Influence Online.

The Privacy-at-Ransom Testbed (PART) project, led by Dr Shishir Nagaraja in the Department of Computer and Information Sciences, will investigate the three-way dynamics between storage privacy-enhancing technologies (PETs), ransomware, and ransomware defences.

Dr Nagaraja said: “Ransomware defences work by identifying the typical behaviour of ransomware – the steps it follows to find and encrypt data before demanding a ransom – which is known as its kill-chain behaviour.

“However, privacy-enhancing storage technologies (storage PETs) – which include cryptographic algorithms, AI algorithms and data-masking techniques – also undertake these same actions to protect data-at-rest.

“This has significant implications since ransomware defences, such as anti-virus software and firewalls, could actually undermine storage PETS – meaning these defences can’t identify good encryption from bad encryption.

Our project will use a testbed approach to shed light on the extent and nature of this phenomena.

Protecting citizens

The project is one of eight that have received almost £750,000 in funding from REPHRAIN, based at the University of Bristol which focuses on protecting citizens online while allowing them to safely engage in digital technologies.

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 – for protecting citizens online. These outcomes will be collated and made available via the REPHRAIN Toolbox, addressing a comprehensive set of harms.