British Transport Police Spent £40,000 on Social Media Surveillance Software

Transport for London (TFL) also bought the software, called RepKnight.

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Oct 12 2016, 1:57pm

Image: Shutterstock

The British Transport Police (BTP), the UK's national police force for the country's railways, has purchased online monitoring tools that can be used to surveil social media and monitor communities' "mood," according to expenditure records.

Law enforcement's use of such tools hit headlines on Tuesday, when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of California published documents showing that similar technology, called Geofeedia, had been used to monitor protesters. Facebook and Instagram terminated Geofeedia's data access to their sites in September, and Twitter announced it had followed suit on Tuesday.

The BTP, meanwhile, has purchased software called RepKnight. According to the company's website, RepKnight can help identify, investigate or prevent political unrest, criminal activity, and activists. It can also be used to investigate DDoS attacks.

RepKnight. Screenshot: Invest Northern Ireland/YouTube

As well as searching Facebook, Reddit, Twitter and other social networks, RepKnight can be used for "sentiment analysis," which presents users with "an instant summary of the mood across your search results, letting you quickly spot if something's going wrong," RepKnight's site reads. Customers can use the service through a normal web browser, as well as on tablets and mobile phones.

In all, the BTP has spent £41,400 ($50,500) on purchasing the software and annual licenses for its use since July 2014, according to figures published by the Department for Transport.

Transport for London (TFL), which is responsible for the capital's public transportation network, has also purchased the same software, in part, to gather intelligence on crime, according to public records. (The records also indicate the software was bought to "obtain information relating to the TFL Transport network.")

RepKnight was launched in 2011, and originally developed through the UK Government Small Business Research and Innovation program, which invites companies or organizations to work on solutions to problems the government faces. RepKnight was founded particularly in response to riots in London, according to RepKnight's website.

A selection of RepKnight's alleged data sources, including Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, and Telegram. Source: https://www.repknight.com/

"We worked closely with UK national intelligence analysts in the development of our solution, to ensure the capability tracked the requirement of agencies and organizations dealing with threats and risks to public safety," the site reads. RepKnight doesn't only sell its product to law enforcement, but to private companies as well. Although the website doesn't say who these clients are, it says that the commercial sector can use RepKnight to, "quickly identify data leaks, malicious insiders or hacktivists, and gain time-critical competitive intelligence."

In January 2015, the government announced that RepKnight had been awarded its first contract with the US government, worth £1.7 million ($2 million).

RepKnight did not respond to Motherboard's request for comment. It is unclear whether RepKnight relies on some of the same means of access as Geofeedia did, before that product's tap into social media site data was revoked.

A BTP spokesperson told Motherboard in an email that, "Social media is a key tool for the force and has transformed the speed at which we can be made aware of incidents across the rail network. We use open source monitoring software in order to respond quickly and effectively to serious and major incidents across the UK. The software is used in line with national guidance and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000."

As previously reported, a special unit of the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) has monitored populations' mood on social media, and has also used RepKnight.

"For the Olympics we looked at events five days in advance so we could make a prediction to say what was going to happen," Umut Ertogral, who runs the unit, told a security conference in 2013. The MPS has also used social media to keep tabs on nearly 9,000 political campaigners, many of which reportedly don't have a criminal record.

This article has been updated to include comment from the BTP.