Friday 1 May 2020 6:00 am

Could the pandemic be a turning point for tech's relationship with the state?

Ian Stevenson is CEO and Founder at Cyan Forensics

The COVID-19 pandemic the world currently finds itself in is worrying for everyone. From fears around job security to health and wellbeing of friends and family, it is a concerning time for all. The coronavirus is seeming to bring out both the best in humanity, with greater sense of community and people volunteering for the NHS in unprecedented numbers, but it also gives room for the darker side of human instinct to flourish. 

As many more adults and children across the world are now working and being educated from home, potentially spending a larger amount of time online, observers fear that there is a greater chance of online platforms being used for harm, increasing child safety issues. Cybercriminals are amongst the most adept at exploit emerging opportunities and vulnerabilities during the pandemic, from aping official government communications on the virus in the form of phishing through to more typical predatory behaviour. 

This is made all the more stark with news that agencies such as Europol and the U.K.’s National Crime Agency are seeing an increase in online child sexual exploitation since the COVID-19 lockdown began – a trend being echoed in several different countries such as Australia, Sweden and Spain. Discussions about the COVID-19 pandemic are already appearing in corners of the dark web, where users are anticipating that isolation measures will increase the opportunities to contact children remotely and have more time to download available illicit material.

And yet, the coronavirus crisis could have the unexpected consequence of increased dialogue and cooperation between tech companies and EU politicians. Tech platforms have taken immediate practical action to play a crucial role in the COVID-19 crisis, leading to Thierry Breton, EU Internal Market Commissioner, to suggest this could be a turning point in how big platforms behave in the future.

Read more: Tech firms collaborate on app

Collaboration must continue

It’s not just the shadowy corners of the dark web that are finding coronavirus issues linked to online safety. Since the start of the crisis, the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has taken down 2,000 internet scams seeking to dupe people looking for advice or services related to the pandemic. Better regulation of the web and reporting measures need to be put in place to help support the vulnerable.

Elsewhere, the pandemic is causing governments, tech companies and regulators to work closely together. Earlier this week, reports emerged that Google and Apple had been liaising with GCHQ (and even more surprisingly, each other), the NCSC and the NHS to create a contact-tracing app to help limit the spread of COVID-19. However, the plan is currently rejected by the NHS as the discussions between having a centralised or de-centralised app to protect user safety continue.

How we can work together

Ultimately, the topic of online safety is broad and complicated. Unfortunately for regulators and providers, it is made up of many individual problems, meaning that there is no silver bullet to solve the issue in its entirety. 

But with many complex areas, a trouble shared is a trouble halved. That’s why new industry associations such as the Online Safety Tech Industry Association (OSTIA), are so important as a powerful collective voice to enact change. By focusing on specific, actionable areas, the association can focus on demonstrating how the thriving safety-related products and services market will play a significant role in helping companies protect the most vulnerable from accessing harmful content. OSTIA currently has 14 technology companies – each experts in their respective areas of online safety – working closely together, alongside government bodies, charities and other organisations, so it can ensure that the public, technology companies and policy makers are aware of what can be done.

Organisations need to continue to collaborate to ensure change is enacted; especially in the face of unprecedented times such as these. Slowly but surely, by working in harmony, we will continue to make significant steps to combat the dangers present in an increasingly online world. 

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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