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UK safety tech sees another year of growth, amidst backlash

Record investment in the sector has led to widespread implementation of safety measures, but rights groups and some experts still aren't convinced

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UK safety tech sector revenues hit £381 million last year, the government has announced, an increase of 21% across the ‘world-leading’ industry. 

This was matched by the creation of jobs within the sector, with a total number of 2,850 now available marking a 30% increase from the previous year.

Additionally, 57% of safety tech firms were based outside of London and the South East, a sizeable increase from the 48% based outside of these regions just two years prior. In total, 117 firms have been identified as currently offering safety tech solutions.

In a blog post, the government specifically championed safety tech such as tools used to detect and remove child sexual exploitation and abuse (CSEA) content. These systems have been put in the spotlight by the government’s Online Safety Bill, which seeks to compel companies to use or develop such tools to even work on messages currently protected by end-to-end encryption (E2EE).

The bill has drawn criticism from rights organisations such as The Open Rights Group, which has described the measures as “an Orwellian censorship machine.” A recent survey of industry experts also revealed that 66% thought ending E2EE would have a negative impact on protecting society, while Meta plans rollout of E2EE across Messenger and Instagram in 2023.

Last year, the government set up the Safety Tech Challenge Fund, a £555,000 competition to find novel solutions for combatting CSEA content without impacting people’s rights to privacy. These include artificial intelligence (AI) and facial recognition solutions for detecting child abuse images before upload.

At the time, it was announced that the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) would offer advice to the winners, to protect privacy throughout the development process.

However, doubts have been raised over the feasibility of regulation of direct messaging that also retains privacy measures. Last year several rights organisations signed an open letter to MPs, stating that the tech being sought by the government would be bad for business as well as individual privacy.

“End-to-end encryption means that your constituents’ family photographs, messages to friends and family, financial information, and the commercially sensitive data of businesses up and down the country, can all be kept safe from harm’s way,” the letter stated.

“It also keeps us safer in a world where connected devices have physical effect: end-to-end encryption secures connected homes, cars and children’s toys. The government should not be making those more vulnerable to attack.”

At the time of writing, the Online Safety Bill has been put ‘on ice’ amidst Conservative Party restructuring, leaving the timeline for when these changes can be expected to be passed into law unclear.

When the house returns in September the bill could be redrafted, or scrapped entirely under the leadership of either Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak.

For now, safety tech sees no signs of slowing, as 67% of firms within the sector predict a customer base increase of 50% or more within the next 12 months. 

“Making the online world safer is not only the right thing to do, it’s good for business,” said digital minister Damien Collins

“UK tech firms are at the cutting-edge developing practical solutions to the risks posed by the internet so that it continues to be a benefit not a detriment to people’s lives.

“They have blazed a trail of growth, innovation and job creation to become world leaders in their field and we are committed to maintaining their upward trajectory.”

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