An artificial intelligence firm hired to work on the Vote Leave campaign may analyse social media data, utility bills and credit rating scores as part of a £400,000 contract to help the government deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
The company, Faculty, was awarded the contract by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government last month. However the full details of its work for the government are unknown because the published version of the contract was partly redacted.
The disclosure comes amid questions from civil liberties groups as to how private companies hired by the government during the pandemic are using confidential personal data.
The unredacted portion of the contract shows that the MHCLG said such work was likely to require data from “social media, utility providers and telecom bills, credit rating agencies” as well as from the government, but provides few other specifics.
It brings the number of government contracts awarded to Faculty to at least nine in the last two years. The contracts in total are worth at least £1.6m.
Three of these contracts relate to the provision of artificial intelligence services to inform government departments attempting to manage the impact of coronavirus.
Faculty, which has links to senior Tory figures in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, declined to say how many contracts it had won in total from the government for work connected to the pandemic, nor how much the contracts were worth.
The latest contract was awarded directly to Faculty without other firms being given an opportunity to make a competitive bid. The ministry said there was an “urgent need to bring in additional analytics support to help inform our response to the coronavirus pandemic”.
Public bodies have been allowed to award contracts without a competitive tender during the pandemic as ministers believe that private firms need to be hired quickly to deal with the outbreak. The MHCLG contract, entitled “Data scientists for MHCLG Covid-19 response”, was awarded in April and will run until July.
The precise details of the company’s work are not entirely clear from the contract, in part because a key passage relating to “three areas where immediate support is required” is blacked out. An MHCLG spokesperson said the withheld information related to datasets held by the ministry that were considered sensitive.
“Faculty is helping MHCLG to analyse data in real time allowing the department to monitor the impact of Covid-19 on local communities and respond to emerging issues at pace.”
Founded in 2014 as Advanced Skills Initiative, the company rebranded as Faculty in February 2019. It first came to public attention for its work helping the Vote Leave campaign.
Dominic Cummings, the chief executive of the Vote Leave campaign and now chief adviser to the prime minister, Boris Johnson, recruited one of Faculty’s data scientists, Ben Warner, to work with him in Downing Street.
In April the Guardian revealed that both Cummings and Warner had been attending meetings of Sage, the government’s committee of scientific advisers. It subsequently emerged that Marc Warner, the brother of Ben and the chief executive of Faculty, has also attended.
Faculty has previously said that it has “strong governance procedures in place to guard against conflicts of interest when competing for new work. All of its contracts with the government are won through the proper processes and in line with procurement rules.”
Faculty has previously received at least two other contracts for work on Covid-19.
One of Faculty’s shareholders is the Cabinet Office minister Lord Agnew, who owns £90,000 of the company’s shares. He is resisting calls to dispose of the shareholding despite his role overseeing the Government Digital Service, which is responsible for digital procurement.
Growing concern about the extent of private involvement in the government’s coronavirus response – and uncertainty surrounding the use of confidential data by tech firms hired by the government – has prompted one campaign group to threaten legal action.
The technology campaign group Foxglove said it had asked the government for copies of data sharing agreements signed with the companies involved in the government’s “Covid-19 datastore”, including Faculty, in April. Last month the government said it needed more time to decide whether releasing them would unduly damage the companies’ commercial interests.
“We haven’t seen the contracts, we haven’t seen the data sharing agreements,” said Cori Crider, the director of Foxglove. “We don’t know what they’re permitted to do with [the data].”
The Scott Trust, the ultimate owner of the Guardian, is the sole investor in GMG Ventures, which is a minority shareholder in Faculty.