Vote Leave’s AI firm handed government contracts worth £3m - but for what?

Artificial intelligence operation Faculty Private has also received payments from company owned by Dominic Cummings

Dominic Cummings
(Image credit: Peter Summers/Getty Images)

An artificial intelligence firm that has been awarded government contracts worth millions after working on the Vote Leave campaign has also been handed almost £260,000 by a private company owned by Dominic Cummings, it has emerged.

The prime minister’s right-hand man and AI operation Faculty have both declined to explain the reason for the payments by Cummings’ consultancy operation Dynamic Maps, The Guardian reports.

But the payments, made over two years, “are likely to raise further questions about the relationship between Cummings and the data analytics firm he hired in 2016 to conduct data modelling around the EU referendum for Vote Leave”, says the newspaper.

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What is the government paying for?

The Guardian reported in May that Cummings’s arrival in Downing Street had seen Faculty “rapidly expanding its reach into various corners of Whitehall” after being “tasked with finding ways to apply artificial intelligence across government”.

Last month, The Telegraph revealed that the company had been given a £400,000 contract to “tap data from places such as social media sites to help steer the government’s response to Covid-19”.

Official government documents show that Faculty was hired “to provide data scientists who could set up ‘alternative data sources (e.g. social media, utility providers and telecom bills, credit rating agencies, etc)’”, as well as working with the Home Office to develop “terrorist blocking systems”, the newspaper said.

The firm has now been handed a total of at least 13 contracts since early 2018, worth a total of about £3m, according to The Guardian.

Lawyers for Faculty this week told the paper that the firm “rejected any suggestion it received preferential treatment from the prime minister’s chief adviser”.

So is there any controversy?

Faculty’s ties to government have been under increased scrutiny following reports in May that Cabinet Office minister owns a £90,000 shareholding in the firm.

Theodore Agnew is responsible for “the government department that promotes the use of digital technology within public services”, raising questions about his involvement with the company, The Guardian reported. A government spokesperson said Agnew had no role in awarding any contracts to Faculty.

In a separate row, openDemocracy reported in June that documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request suggested the government “misled the public about how it is protecting the privacy of millions of NHS users in its major Covid-19 data deals”.

The investigative journalism site said the contracts relating to deals with tech firms including Faculty indicated that the companies “could profit from the intellectual property generated from the project (despite assurances to the contrary)” and that “NHS users could be re-identified from their health data”.

The claims came weeks after journalist David Hencke alleged that the firms won the contracts without them “being put out to competitive tender”.

The deals were “justified by NHS England as legitimate under an obscure statutory instrument laid before Parliament in February 2015 by the Coalition Government”, Hencke reported.

Faculty’s lawyers had previously told The Guardian that “its NHS contract was the result of a tender process that was not influenced by Cummings”.

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