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“Can safety tech 2.0 save the internet?”

Imagine a digital breathaliser that could plug into a computer or mobile device to detect child abuse and terrorist content. This a tool that Ian Stevenson, CEO of Cyan Forensics, has been pioneering with police agencies. 

Welcome to the dawn of ‘safety tech 2.0’ – where digital innovators are moving away from crude home filtering and blocking tools and towards new system-level tech integrated into everyday online platforms. 

The UK safety tech industry is being supported by the DCMS in developing new ways of making the internet a safer place. And Stevenson, chairman of Online Safety Tech Industry Association (OSTEA), believes that online platforms should now have “safety built-in”.

“If you take the example of child abuse content, there really is no legal use for that on the internet and therefore it should simply be blocked,” he says. 

“That seems like a fairly straightforward transaction. But even if you start talking about bullying or hate speech, there are things you can do at the system level that you cannot do on an individual user's phone to spot patterns [to] help make more nuanced and sophisticated safety decisions.”

“We need trade-offs between privacy, free speech and safety”

Identifying and removing illegal content from end-to-end encrypted messaging apps, for example, might seem a no-brainer. But, as Stevenson explains in the latest episode of Tech Shock, the development of safety tech is not without its obstacles.

“The biggest single barrier is actually having a consensus of what safety tech should do, because it risks coming into conflict with other rights,” he says.

“If you are examining people's messages, that potentially conflicts with the right to privacy. If you are blocking people from saying certain things, that potentially conflicts with the right to free speech. 

“If you look at just about everything else we do in society, we trade these things off. But we've not properly started exploring what the right trade-offs are between privacy, free speech and safety in the online world.” 

“This is a really important debate for society”

In this search for a balance of security and rights, Stevenson draws parallels with security checks at airports. Especially in the case of children, where protecting a child while maximising their freedom must also be considered. 

“It's insane [that] one of the trade-offs we don't seem to be happy with is some small amount of privacy at the expense of being able to scan for known child abuse images,” he says. 

“If you want to fly on an airplane, you probably have to submit to having your baggage x-rayed, [being] potentially searched and providing your identity documents. That certainly has consequences for privacy as well.

“I think this is a really important debate for society. If you look at the real world, there are lots of spaces that require age verification. If I want to travel on an airline, I have to verify my age or prove that I've got arrangements in place to look after me. 

“You can use really good nudity detection in combination with age verification to protect children. It's really important we don't exclude children from accessing, for example, LGBT content – but we also have to recognize that there is some content in the world that isn't suitable for children.”

“It will take time to get to all the right answers”

Stevenson does accept that while it is vital not to hold digital to a “higher standard” than the physical world, safety tech must support wider education about acceptable behaviours.

“We're starting to understand as a society that tech is enabling harm in a fundamentally new way and that that isn't socially acceptable. I think it will take time to get to all the right answers around this. 

“But actually, a lot of this will be social. It will be about how we educate our children and young people. It'll be about how we educate ourselves.”

To hear the full discussion, listen to 
the new episode of Tech Shock: “Bot detectives!”

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