Government hired firm with links to Dominic Cummings to track tweets by UK citizens

PUBLISHED: 11:05 11 August 2020 | UPDATED: 11:08 11 August 2020

Number 10 special advisor Dominic Cummings arrives in Downing Street. (Photo by Tolga AKMEN / AFP) (Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

Number 10 special advisor Dominic Cummings arrives in Downing Street. (Photo by Tolga AKMEN / AFP) (Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

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The government has paid an Artificial Intelligence (AI) firm linked to Dominic Cummings and the Vote Leave camp to conduct analyses on British citizens’ tweets about coronavirus.

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Faculty, an AI firm hired by Dominic Cummings for the Vote Leave campaign, was paid £400,000 by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) to collect and analyse tweets by UK citizens.

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In June, The Guardian reported sections of the contract detailing the firm’s duties, which was released into the public domain, had been redacted.

But following a debate in the House of Lords, the government was pressured into publishing an unredacted version which describes the company’s work as “topic analysis of social media to understand public perception and emerging issues of concern to Her Majesty’s Government arising from the Covid-19 crisis”.

It also explained that AI would be applied to social media data.

Silkie Carlo, the director of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch, which discovered the updated contract, expressed alarm at the details.

“This is effectively AI-powered mass political surveillance, and it’s been done in a very secretive way, apparently to inform policy,” she said.

“It seems from the contract this social media monitoring has been going on for three months, and machine learning has been used for that time. We don’t know what the impact is.”

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A Faculty spokesperson has declined to comment on the criticism but said the project focused on analysing public Twitter posts containing the words “covid” or “coronavirus” to help the government detect issues relating to the pandemic in local communities.

They said personally identifiable markers, such as usernames or profiles, were removed from the data at the point of collection.

But Carlo was sceptical the strategy would work. “Twitter is not representative of public opinion as a whole,” she said. “I think there are a lot of questions to be asked about the premise.”

An MHCLG spokesperson said: “We are satisfied that the service provided by Faculty was of a high standard, and delivered on value for money.” They added that the contract expired in July.

Faculty, which has two current and former Tory ministers as shareholders, has been awarded seven government contracts in the last 21 months.

In May, those contracts totalled £280,000.

MORE: Payments raise questions over Dominic Cummings’ connections with Vote Leave firm hired by government

In 2016, the firm was recruited by Cummings to provide data science and machine learning technology for the Vote Leave campaign. The work was carried out by Ben Warner, the brother of Faculty’s CEO, Marc Warner.

He subsequently worked on the Tories’ 2019 general election campaign, and was later recruited as a data science advisor to Downing Street.

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