UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy


Niamh Healy - PhD candidate

Can you briefly describe what your research project is about?

My research project focuses on the role of the private sector in the development of international norms for cyberspace. For the past decade or so, international policy-makers have identified the development of ‘norms’ as a priority for the stability of cyberspace. These norms are intended to regulate behaviour in cyberspace. Much of the activity to identify and develop cyber norms has centred on the United Nations Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on ‘Advancing responsible State behaviour in cyberspace in the context of international security’ and more recently an Open-ended Working Group also based at the UN. It is not only states that have been working to promote cyber norms. International organisations, international NGOs, and corporations have all been working to advance certain norms.

I am particularly interested in the contributions of corporations to this effort. Much of what cybersecurity attempts to secure is privately owned, including Internet infrastructure itself. Large technology companies are increasingly ‘governing’ in new ways and in new areas due to their design and control of digital technologies. We see this from Facebook’s Oversight Board affecting the development of freedom of expression online, through to Google and Apple’s shaping of pandemic response through their contact tracing technology. My project will explore how this governance activity is shaping norms for cyberspace.

How is it different from other research projects on the topic?

Existing research on the contribution of corporations to cyber norm development has predominantly focused on public diplomacy work done by large technology companies like Microsoft. My project is interested in the less public ways that corporations impact cyber norms such as through decisions about the development of their technologies. I am also interested in exploring what these effects tell us about broader questions within international relations: what can they tell us about power, legitimacy and authority within a digital age?

What are you working on now to prepare for the next stage of the project?

I am based within UCL’s Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Cybersecurity, a new interdisciplinary centre for the study of cybersecurity. My first year involved engaging with different areas of cybersecurity through completing various assignments and research projects on a mix of socio-technical topics. My next step is to take the insights I developed through my first-year work and develop my plans for my own PhD. For my first-year project, I spent my summer thinking and writing about Google and Apple’s intervention in contact-tracing technology. This case study is incredibly interesting from so many perspectives – digital rights, surveillance, data governance – but I focused on what it showed us about power and digital technology. I am interested in expanding the research I did here into a chapter of my PhD, through interviews and further analysis.

What do you find exciting about this project?

What I find so exciting about this project is how relevant and important it is. The idea for my first-year project came from just following the news around COVID-19 and observing emerging plans for technology to help control the outbreak. Questions around private sector power and technology have huge implications for rights, for accountability, and for democracy. I also love how interdisciplinary work in cybersecurity necessarily is. I don’t have a technical background, and I love the challenge of confronting a new piece of technology and trying to figure out how it ‘works’. Both in a technical sense but also in terms of how it works politically as well.