Technology for protecting online privacy during major life changes

Woman's hand on computer mouse

Technology designed to help people manage their online privacy during major life changes is being developed in a cybersecurity study involving the University of Strathclyde.

The three-year, £3.4 million project will produce three Privacy-Enhancing Technologies (PETs) to support people in navigating significant life transitions, such as relationship breakdowns, developing a serious illness, leaving employment in the Armed Forces, or coming out as LBGTQ+.

Experts in Cybersecurity, Psychology, Law, Business, and Criminology will collaborate in the project, titled AP4L (Adaptive PETs to Protect & emPower People during Life Transitions). It is led at the University of Surrey and the Universities of Chester, Edinburgh, Cambridge and Queen Mary University of London are also partners.

The PETs to be developed in the project are:

  • Risk Playgrounds, which will build resilience by helping people to explore potentially risky interactions of life transitions with privacy settings across their digital footprint in safe ways
  • Transition Guardians, which 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 one person's life transition, while providing additional guarantees to safeguard everyone involved.

The project has received £3.44 million funding from EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council), of which Strathclyde is receiving £600,812.

Professor Wendy Moncur, of Strathclyde’s Department of Computer and Information Sciences, is the University’s lead in the project. She said: “Managing privacy online is increasingly complicated. It’s possible to reveal a lot about ourselves to a huge and unseen audience, unless we’re experts at privacy settings and have time to spare. Many people tell us that their lives are ‘boring’ and that they are not worried about managing their privacy online, yet when big life changes happen, there are good reasons to manage online privacy.

“For someone going through a relationship breakdown, previously enabled location-sharing with a partner may lead to stalking after a breakup if privacy settings are not revised. For someone newly diagnosed with cancer, they may not want everyone to know their news. At a time when there are far more important things to do, the internet demands that we become experts in privacy settings if we are to prevent that huge and unseen audience from finding out our deeply personal information.

“It’s vital to understand people’s needs and vulnerabilities, so that we design cybersecure systems that are right for them. Everybody goes through difficult challenges in their lives, so this work is relevant to everyone. We’re delighted to be working with leading UK charities, and their service users, to build this understanding.”

Dr Karen Renaud, a Strathclyde expert in human-centred security and privacy, said: “It’s important that these technologies are easy to use and are designed to maximise acceptability and adoption. We will test them with a range of possible users, so that they are fit-for-purpose, instead of just being more of a hurdle than a useful tool.”

Professor Jeff Yan of Strathclyde said: “The importance of the research is reflected by the range of 26 core partners involved, spanning legal enforcement agencies, tech companies and leading UK charities.”

Professor Fiona Strens, Director of the Strathclyde Security and Resilience Research Centre and a key advisor on the project, said: “Moving from military or crown service to civilian life, and vice versa, can be very stressful as a major life transition. As part of this, adapting online presence and digital footprints is hard but necessary - to protect national security, the safety of family and friends and one’s own well-being. It’s an area ready for research and innovation.”