A greater level of protection needs to occur online

Safety Tech: the overlooked facet of the tech sector

For Suki Fuller, there’s an essential tenet missing with the growth of online technology: the human angle

Suki Fuller - Data Dreamer

Suki Fuller

Competitive strategic advisor and analytical storyteller

This guest article about Safety Tech is by Suki Fuller, whose eclectic 19-year career within strategic intelligence and technology has taken her from the US Department of Defense to teaching in China. She is one of Computer Weekly’s Top 20 Most Influential Women in UK Tech and Fellow of The Council of Competitive Intelligence Fellows.

A greater level of protection needs to occur online as technology becomes a larger more integral part of our everyday lives. Our governments provide offline protection in the form of the police force and other safeguards, and we’re also expected to mitigate some of that risk ourselves within society. But where are the online protections and policing? 

The case for Safety Tech

It seems the essential tenet missing with the growth of online technology has been an angle associated with the human – the most important component (although looking at the state of our planet that is debatable). Illegal harm to a person in real life – “IRL” – should also be illegal online, it’s all life, after-all.

Forgive my hyperbole but why the heck is safety not implicitly stated in vision statements or policies? We spend so much time protecting the intangible (such as data) but the very tangible user – i.e. the ‘human’ – is rarely seen in how products and services online are generally designed, with regards to safety. 

First some definitions – what isn’t Safety Tech?

We have protections for our systems, networks and programs from digital attacks. This practice is known as cybersecurity. Usually cyberattacks are aimed at accessing, changing, manipulating or destroying sensitive information; extorting money from users (ransomware); or interrupting normal business processes. Heck, it seems nothing gets under the skin as much as the loss of business time, aka the loss of money! The move to legislate against those that exploit in this manner has shifted beyond the cases of recent past history and are now forefront once again thanks to current global attacks.

Another area we, as a society, are fervent about is data security. This tends to refer to the process of protecting data from unauthorized access and corruption throughout its lifecycle. Data security includes encryption, hashing and tokenization, plus practices that aim to protect data across applications and platforms. Smaller companies are often told the main area of importance is protecting customer data (the personal identifiable information) to the detriment of other areas of equal, if not higher, value being overlooked – such as Safety Tech. Hypothetically speaking, if your customers do not feel safe when using your website (especially if your site includes any interaction with another human) perhaps data security shouldn’t be your first relevant port of call.


So, what is Safety Tech?

Safety Tech is the most interesting and exciting development in this corner of the technology sector for me, as it is “human” focused. Of course, I am slightly biased having been the MC and host for the inaugural Safety Tech 2021 event held in March 2021 (you can catch all the sessions on YouTube for free).  

The UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) says there is “no unified or agreed definition of online Safety Technologies or Safety Tech”. However, in a seminal independent report commissioned by the DCMS, a very good definition of the Safety Tech sector is provided: “Any organisation involved in developing technology or solutions to facilitate safer online experiences, and to protect users from harmful content, contact or conduct.”

Safety Tech is therefore a qualitative and more “human” approach, with toolbox solutions for what can be accomplished proactively with a socially conscious aim. Indeed, the DCMS research asserted a broad view of Safety Tech to include, but not be limited to, three areas:

  • Content: being exposed to illegal, inappropriate or harmful material
  • Contact: being subjected to harmful online interaction with other users
  • Conduct: personal online behavior that increases the likelihood of, or causes, harm

While the study is devoted to the “online” as we well know, these also apply “offline” as well.

Safety Tech then should be central to the fundamental construct and principles of a company when designing platforms for online usage. And according to the new draft Online Safety Bill guidance published in June 2021, the DCMS agrees with this sentiment. The bill lays out four safety by design principles and seven practical steps to aid in the protection of a company’s customers or users. Essentially the framework for a company in the UK now exists and it can no longer be claimed there are no pointers to assist regarding safety. 

Some companies and organizations are already developing, building and growing with safety at their forefront and not as an afterthought. Most of the companies adopting this framework are not backward integrating the concept – it is part of their lifeblood.

A prime example of this is identity proving platform, Yoti, which has seven core principles: 

  1. Always act in the interest of our users
  2. Encourage personal data ownership
  3. Enable privacy and anonymity
  4. Keeping sensitive data secure
  5. Keep our community safe
  6. Be transparent and accountable
  7. Make Yoti available to anyone 

For companies focused on data privacy, you would think these are some basic shared principles. But unfortunately, due to the nature of funding for many young technology companies, protecting the user is rarely clearly stated before approaching investors. And often it ends up being relegated to a status not as important as financial returns. 

However, another promising organization is Yubo, a six year old French social media company for 13-25 year old demographic. Last year it implemented a feature prompting users with a pop-up to reconsider before sharing content they have not viewed or read. This feature was recently adopted by Twitter

Safety for users is also a stated core principle for Yubo and they have dedicated “Safety” and “Law Enforcement Guide” pages on their website. Proactive measures like these help ensure there are clearly defined lines of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. Given the high incidence of cyberbullying and related deaths, these tools should be easily available and accessible on all sites, not hidden away with multiple layers and tabs, so deep you need to pick through a company website with a fine tooth comb. Way to be a trailblazer Yubo! 

What’s next? 

The Safety Tech sector has grown leaps and bounds over the last few years with organizations like OSTIA providing a place for cohesive, coordinated and collaborative direction to occur in the UK. There are plenty more, too. The Safety Tech Innovation Network, a government led initiative; industry leaders CrispeSafeSafeToNet, celebrity-founded Thorn and many others. 

I’m confident the Safety Tech sector – particularly in the UK – will continue to flourish, with over 100 companies now identified as being a part of the growing space. The UK Safety Tech: 2021 Analysis asserts that the “sector’s revenue has grown by 39% in the last year”. A promising sight beyond UK borders is the recent roundtables between the UK’s DCMS and Department for International Trade (DIT), with the German North Rhine Westphalian Cyber Crime Agency ZAC geared to foster more collaboration between the two countries regarding online harms and Safety Tech measures. 

My biggest hope is that Safety Tech becomes a fully-fledged and recognized section of the technology community beyond fringe status, and it looks that way as more users demand measures from both companies and governments when online behavior affects and influences offline actions – as recently displayed in the aftermath of Euro 2020

There is so much more to unpack and cover in this new exciting area of technology and even G7 Leaders agree, citing “internet safety principles” as paramount to the global post pandemic rebuild at the 2021 G7 Leaders Summit in June.

We’ve truly not even scratched the surface. So for now, let’s all just keep an eye on those privacy features!