The director of the civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, Silkie Carlo, has expressed her alarm at discovering that the government is effectively using “AI-powered mass political surveillance, and it’s been done in a very secretive way, apparently to inform policy”. Silkie explains that the government has been using “social media monitoring.. for three months” and that “machine learning has been used for that time”.
Back in May, Spotlight Newspaper reported a story about certain technology firms being given access to “large volumes of confidential UK patient information in a data-mining operation” as part of the government’s program to tackle the coronavirus outbreak. At the time, the Guardian had gained access to documents from a firm called ‘Faculty’ that showed they were hoping run simulations to assess the impact of “targeted herd immunity”, although the firm subsequently denied any such simulation took place. Sections of the documentation seen by the Guardian had also been redacted so it wasn’t possible to ascertain the full scope of the firms remit but it was clear that they would have access to “large volumes of data pertaining to individuals, including protected health information, Covid-19 test results, the contents of people’s calls to the NHS health advice line 111 and clinical information about those in intensive care. They also had access to a master patient index and an existing NHS resource that uses “social marketing data” which would also give them “phone location data” to ‘assist with contact tracing.’ We also reported that ‘Faculty’ is actually run by Marc Warner, whose brother, Ben Warner, had been recruited to Downing Street by none other than Dominic Cummings and that the firms had suddenly been given 7 government contracts. Ben Warner was even allowed to attend Sage meetings with Cummings.
Today we’re hearing that part of Faculty’s remit was to collect and analyse tweets from UK citizens and that two of the firms shareholders (Theodore Agnew and John Nash) happen to be current and former Conservative ministers. Apparently this was a different contract issued by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which is odd because the un-redacted version of the contract was recently published and it suggests that they were instructed to work on “topic analysis of social media to understand public perception and emerging issues of concern to HMG arising from the Covid-19 crisis”and to apply “machine learning.. to social media data”. What any of that has to do with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is unclear.
Faculty claims that personally identifiable information, such as usernames or profiles, were stripped out from the data at the point of collection.