The Department of Health and Social Care has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on software to detect and report online death threats made against “named high-profile individuals involved in the Covid-19 vaccine rollout”.
The technology tools are also intended to identify and flag up misinformation about the pandemic – including targeted “foreign interference” conducted on social media by hostile governments.
Commercial documents reveal that DHSC signed a contract with artificial intelligence firm Logically on 19 July. The deal, which runs for an initial one-year term plus a potential 12-month extension, will see the West Yorkshire-based company use “open-source intelligence” methods to provide “regular reporting of threats to life and property” made against people to be specified by the department – although the contract does not clarify whom or how many these might be.
Open-source intelligence relates to any information that is avaiable to the general public – typically online. This includes that which can be found using standard search engines to search the so-called surface web, as well as the wealth of information on the deep web, which invariably sits outside of the scope of common search tools.
In addition to delivering to government scheduled periodic updates on threats, Logically is also expected to provide “flash reporting of emergent threats to life and property” to the individuals specified by DHSC.
The firm is also contracted to deliver “additional ad hoc research, as and when required, within the scope of monitoring misinformation and other content threats related to the Covid-19 vaccine rollout”.
Commercial documents indicate that the government wishes to monitor threats related to specific "named high-profile individuals” that have a role to play in the delivery and promotion of the coronavirus vaccine drive.
DHSC declined to provide CSW's sister title PublicTechnology, who broke the story, with any more detail on the kind of people that might be subject to such threats, but indicated that it takes any physical or verbal abuse against officials, public servants and ministers “extremely seriously” and reports all abusive behaviour to the police.
A spokesperson for the department said: “We will not tolerate any harassment or mistreatment of staff and we have a range of measures in place to protect our people, including on online platforms.”
Shortly before the contract was signed, reports emerged that individuals and groups opposed to lockdowns and public-health measures, such as vaccine passes and mask-wearing mandates, were using social media and messaging platforms to call for violence against senior officials and ministers.
The targets of such threats have included prime minister Boris Johnson, former health secretary Matt Hancock, government chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance, and chief medical officer Chris Whitty.
Two men have been charged with assaulting Whitty in central London on 27 June. Lewis Hughes pleaded guilty and was sentenced last year to an eight-week suspended prison term, while Jonathan Chew, who is pleading not guilty, was due to be appear in court in December but the case has been delayed because Chew was reportedly suffering from Covid-19.
Founded in 2017, Logically describes itself as a “technology company combining advanced AI and machine learning with one of the world’s largest dedicated fact-checking teams to provide everyone, from individual citizens to national governments, with the tools they need to identify and disarm damaging and misleading information being shared online”.
The deal with the DHSC covers access to the firm’s Logically Intelligence platform. For £684,000 a year, the department will receive a baseline subscription to the platform which, according to the contract, includes “data ingestion, processing, licences, and access for… in-house analysts”.
The tech firm’s website describes the technology as “a threat-intelligence platform that brings together Logically’s capabilities in at-scale analysis, classification and detection to help governments and organisations monitor the online media landscape for the spread of damaging activity and narratives”.
In addition to monitoring threats against officials and ministers, the engagement with the DHSC also covers “active monitoring of misinformation” related to coronavirus and the vaccine rollout. This includes targeted efforts by overseas operatives and administrations.
Services listed in the contract include “detection of inauthentic automation on social media, detect(ion of) foreign interference through official, affiliate and unofficial networks, [and] identification of influence operations on social networks”.
The deal’s initial one-year term concludes on 18 July 2022. If it is extended for a further 12 months, a total of £1.37m will be spent with the tech firm.
Sam Trendall is editor of CSW's sister title PublicTechnology, where this article first appeared.