Interview: Keeping children safe online with Ontaro

Ontaro is a new online safety app that monitors content, manages screen time and filters websites to ensure children are kept safe — while respecting their privacy. Infotec spoke to director and founder Tony Paskin.

What is Ontaro?

It’s an app that parents download on to a child’s phone. The app kind of listens in to what the child is doing and looking at, and if the AI picks up on certain criteria it sends an alert to the parent, providing some of that conversation so the parent can see context. That means it’s not spyware, which would let you see everything. Parents don’t have the time to watch everything a child is saying and doing on a phone. They don’t have time to dig into deleted messages or hidden apps. And parents aren’t always savvy to what things might mean or lead to. Besides, a child at 13 has the same rights to privacy as an adult. We hope Ontaro strikes a good balance, keeping children safe but not intruding.

The Ontaro app

What are the criteria Ontaro’s AI looks out for?

A range of things, related to issues like cyber-bullying, alcohol, drugs, eating disorders, mental health, self harming, suicide, grooming and so on. For example, it will pick up that a child has been looking at stuff about laxatives, which can be used to lose weight, which in turn suggests an eating disorder. Spotting that early is really important: by the time someone is formally diagnosed with anorexia or bulimia, they can have permanently damaged their organs. The app alerts the parent and provides help for talking about this and taking action. Parents need help here — how do you even raise a thing like that in conversation without pushing a child further away? We delegate to different sites and groups with specialist guidance — such as Beat, the eating disorder charity. The app picks up on the kinds of language used. It also has ways of monitoring if a child is approached by someone online who wants to be sent photos or for the child to do things.

What gave you the idea?

Unfortunately, about five years ago a friend of the family was lost to suicide. It turned out, from looking at their social media, that they’d been looking at stuff about self harm and suicide online for a while. I soon learned that this was a wider problem. Children go out into the online world and talk to people there, and they can be bullied, harassed or trolled. Peers at school can use social media to bully them or put them down, so it feels that there’s no escape. Sometimes you can detect anxiety and depression in a child’s online activity — warning signs no one was picking up. I thought there had to be something we could do to help and started to look into it. There’s spyware and key logging [recording the keys struck on a keyboard to monitor use]. But there was also the legal side of the child’s rights to privacy. And parents heavy-handedly stopping their children going online or watching everything they did didn’t seem to work. There were examples where that sort of action made children more secretive about what they were doing and less likely to speak up if there was a concern.

Having had the idea to do something, how did you make it a reality?

Once I’d looked into a bit, I knew what we wanted to cover. We then had to identify how that could be done. That took about two and a half years of research into technical aspects. Then I looked for people who could produce what I wanted. That wasn’t as simple as looking round different app creators. This is beyond a normal app, because the parents have a dashboard set-up to receive alerts and there are all the links to guidance and support. I quickly realised after two or three meetings with app creators that I needed something more technical and went to see website developers and attended tech conferences. I spoke to several people who were interested but they’d not done anything like this, and I felt they were trying to sell me on systems and models they had done before, rather than building what I said was needed.

Then I found Razor, a tech company right on my doorstep in Sheffield. This was during Covid so we had a Zoom meeting where I explained everything. They were really honest: they said, ‘We’re not sure how we’d do this but we’ll look into it.’ That’s what they did. They came back with really positive feedback, not just on the app but how to approach the whole project. They did what they call a ‘Razor Sprint’ feasibility study and worked out what the whole thing was likely to cost. They ran workshops and over time developed a minimum viable project (MVP) of the mobile app for Android and the parental web dashboard. The Razor website has a case study about the Ontaro project.

What challenges did you face?

The biggest thing for me was to work out what we could legally do in this area. I employed a legal firm to look into that. GDPR [the European Union’s general data protection regulation] was a big concern. As a result, we don’t store the data we gather. It’s encrypted while we use it then automatically deleted, so there’s no risk of data being stolen. The whole app is password protected anyway and secure. When a parent receives an alert, they see only part of the conversation so it’s not classed as a breach of data. And the child has to agree to the app being on their phone. The parent signing up to the app and the dashboard has to be over 18 and there are disclaimers and conditions.

What about the technical challenges of monitoring activity on a phone? Your system needs to have access to all the apps and systems — including new ones.

We get all that by having access to the phone. It’s a bit technical but we used Google’s AI language model BERT, in the same way as accessibility apps enabling people who are blind or deaf to use smartphones. You can’t just download Ontaro from the Google Play app store. You have to go to our website or use a special QR code, and that requires you to give permission for the app to access these systems on the phone. You need to give permission before you can download it.

The Ontaro dashboard

Where did the name come from?

Motorbike with 'Smaug' dragon design

Tony’s ‘Smaug’ motorbike

I’ve always enjoyed movies and I loved the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit. A few years ago, I was building a motorbike and thought I’d put a mural of Smaug on it, with one of his sayings. A friend suggested that Smaug would have spoken the [fictional] Elvish language Quenya, so I should write it in that. Well, I started looking into all these Elvish words and phrases. ‘Ontaro’ is the Elvish word for ‘parent’.

When did you launch Ontaro?

In June this year, on Android. The Apple iOS version is coming sometime in the next year, and should have some improvements. In fact, since launch we’ve built up a community of users online, a sort of focus group. We set it up in response to a request from a user and I hope it will help us hone and upgrade the system. We’ve already made some improvements. But it also helps people to know they’re not alone in dealing with some of these issues.

Where would you like to see this tech go in future?

I’d like it to be more like a supermarket, with whatever you need easily accessed. Instead of having to look through the different apps and settings on a phone, you go on to Ontaro and it’s there at the touch of a button. You don’t want your child to be able to download any new apps without your permission — click. You don’t want them to use their phone after midnight — click. You want to add a geo-fence, so you get an alert if the phone goes outside a particular geographical area — click. That last one isn’t spying, or tracking the child’s every step, so again it’s providing that balance between monitoring and intrusion of privacy.

But more than anything, the tech is really just a tool to help us all be more aware of the dangers online. When I was young, we’d be warned at school about strangers out in the street or at the park. The advice was to keep well clear then tell a grown-up. Now, a child can be exposed to that kind of danger while on a phone inside the home — so there’s nowhere to escape to. There is growing awareness of the dangers here. The Online Safety Bill is about to become law and that will make a difference but we all have to take responsibility here. I hope Ontaro helps with that — and gives parents some peace of mind as Ontaro could save a child’s life.

Tony Paskin, thank you very much. To learn more about Ontaro and download the app, visit

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