Blog Post

November 20, 2023

Security & Online Safety at PUBLIC: Navigating an Evolving Digital Landscape

As we continue our Spotlight Series, we turn the lens to PUBLIC’s longstanding work building safer online spaces and supporting the national security community to tackle threats in digital environments. Working closely with government, regulators, industry and the broader online safety ecosystem, PUBLIC delivers leading user-centred digital solutions and evidence-based policy interventions in this space. In this edition, our Head of Communications, Natasha Wren, sits down with Daniel Fitter, Director of Strategy & Transformation and subject matter expert in Security & Online Safety at PUBLIC to hear more.
The Online Safety Act in the UK recently received Royal Assent, reflecting a pivotal moment in Britain’s ambition to be the safest place to be online. How has PUBLIC been involved in this journey to date?

From our early days as a GovTech startup accelerator, PUBLIC is proud to have been a trusted partner to the UK Government in the development of the Online Safety Act. Over the last 4 years, we have supported the Department of Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), Home Office, and Ofcom to understand harms online, support the development of online safety tech solutions and build an evidence-based online safety regime. In this journey, PUBLIC has emerged as a leader in the online safety space through mixed-methods, user research, innovative service design methods and digital discovery. 

With Royal Assent in October 2023, the focus now shifts to implementation of the online safety regime. The scale of the delivery challenge is significant: for Ofcom in promoting compliance across 100,000 regulated companies, for law enforcement in policing new digital environments and for DSIT in monitoring the legislation's impact in safeguarding users. Our experience makes us poised to continue our work with Ofcom, law enforcement and government to support the operational technology, processes and understanding of this rapidly evolving landscape.

As the UK and EU prepare to implement new online safety regimes, we are now seeing platforms moving quickly to understand their regulatory duties, the risks on their services and ensure compliance with the EU’s Digital Services Act and the UK’s Online Safety Act. Many platforms are seeking off-the-shelf tools and services from online safety tech suppliers as part of a layered moderation approach that combines in-house tools, human moderation, and third-party solutions. PUBLIC has been supporting the online safety tech sector over the past few years, through our collaboration in establishing the Online Safety Tech Industry Association, research on the International State of Safety Tech, and more recently, an Safety Tech “AI for Good” roundtable between online safety tech providers, government, and investors to discuss the future growth of this market.

We're increasingly seeing bad actors adopt and misuse emerging digital technologies, contributing to a rapidly changing threat landscape. How does your team help clients to tackle these challenges? 

From cryptocurrency to quantum technologies and extended reality to Generative AI (GenAI), the new digital economy, supported by emerging technologies, is creating a huge opportunity for wealth creation and productivity gains but also new criminal activity and national security threats. The democratisation of ChatGPT and other GenAI tools lowers technical and cost barriers to producing synthetic content at scale and pace. However, our recent research has found how bad actors are increasingly using them to create and disseminate harmful content from malicious code or scams to mis/disinformation or Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) production. 

Understanding, mapping, crowdsourcing and implementing tech innovation are key areas where our team supports clients to tackle these issues. In 2021, we supported the UK government and GCHQ with its first-ever Safety Tech Challenge Fund (STCF) to develop proof-of-concepts with the aim of keeping children safe in end-to-end encrypted environments whilst upholding user privacy. PUBLIC’s open innovation approach led to 5 cutting-edge prototypes across age assurance technologies, AI-nudity blocking, hash-matching, and metadata analysis, as well as new industry and academic partnerships. This innovation challenge model, which PUBLIC co-developed, continues to see success. Moving forward, we’re excited about the growth of the online safety tech sector globally, with the 2023 edition of our International State of Safety Tech report scheduled soon so watch this space! 

What space is there for better product and service design to play a role in tackling these challenges? 

You’re absolutely right. Safety by design - putting user safety and rights at the centre of the design and development of products and services - is a critical area of activity  to facilitate safer online experiences, tackle criminal and national security threats and support an effective online safety regulatory regime. 

PUBLIC has deep experience in applying service design, behavioural insights and a user-centred design to protect users in digital environments. For example, following an initial discovery, PUBLIC was commissioned by DSIT in early 2023 to research the impact of platform design on online violence against women and girls (online VAWG). Through mixed-methods research, we identified 12 priority features which were both prevalent across platforms and considered risky for users, and used these insights to develop a range of design recommendations to reduce online VAWG. In the wake of the Online Safety Act, we anticipate public bodies, police forces and civil society will take new steps, including the establishment of strong reporting mechanisms, to combat gender-based online harassment and abuse. 

It’s encouraging to see Ofcom’s approach to implementing the UK Online Safety Act sets out a key outcome of “online services designed and operated with safety in mind.” Further safety by design research holds immense potential to improve the preventative approach, rather than solely relying on identifying and moderating harmful content once it’s out in the world. 

Alongside their safety and security challenges, emerging technologies and digital environments also offer opportunities for national security teams to achieve their mission more effectively. Could you elaborate a bit more on how you view that opportunity for the UK national security community and broader public sector? 

Leaders in national security and law enforcement, like many parts of government, face both a challenge and an opportunity in assessing and exploiting emerging technologies for better service delivery or policy outcomes, without increasing delivery risk. However, the national security community faces the pressure of innovating faster than our adversaries.

Open-source intelligence (OSINT) - the collection and analysis of data gathered from publicly available information (PAI) - is a great illustration of this. OSINT provides the majority of information for actionable national security insights to Government and defence decision-makers in the UK and its international partners, with accelerated adoption in the last 18-months driven by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However, the rapid adoption of OSINT has led to a fragmented landscape, with pockets of world-class capabilities sitting across government departments, limiting the sharing of technology, tradecraft, training, standards, and data. Further, a recent US government-funded report has highlighted that the US, UK and our Nato partners are lagging behind China in this critical area of science and technology-related intelligence collection and analysis. 

Over the past 2 years, PUBLIC has been working across government to tackle this problem and help the national security community exploit this opportunity. Our digital discovery approach has helped government partners to identify common pain points, understand user needs and design user-centric digital products for OSINT analyst teams across departments. Recently, we partnered with the Joint Intelligence Organisation (JIO) in the Cabinet Office to design a trusted and secure digital Information & Data Exchange (INDEX). This initiative facilitates centralised access to relevant information, tradecraft, and services for intelligence assessment. As the UK Government prepares to deliver on its commitment of an OSINT Hub, we’re excited to work with a range of industry partners, OSINT practitioners and government stakeholders to address the fragmentation problem, informed by our lessons learned around OSINT user needs, cross-Whitehall governance and data sharing mechanisms. 

As we navigate the evolving digital landscape and its accompanying challenges, PUBLIC remains committed to supporting ecosystem-driven innovation and digital transformation in online safety and national security. For further insights, partnership inquiries, or to explore how PUBLIC can support you in your Security & Online Safety journey, don’t hesitate to reach out to Daniel Fitter or check out our Expertise page now.


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Daniel Fitter

Director of Strategy & Transformation

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Natasha Wren

Head of Communications

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