4 June 2020 — The Canary
The artificial intelligence (AI) firm employed by Dominic Cummings on the Vote Leave project is now working directly with the government on a highly sensitive data-matching project.
The Canary has obtained a partly redacted version of the project’s contract, and the details are scary.
In short, according to the contract, the government will be able to match someone’s credit details with their social media accounts and their utilities payments. All, apparently, to assist in coronavirus (Covid-19) intelligence gathering.
Contract listed six weeks after the project start date
The Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) offered the contract, and project costs are given as £400,000.
The project – ‘Data scientists for MHCLG Covid-19 response’ – has a start date of 16 April 2020 and a completion date of July 2020. But it was not until 27 May, six weeks after the start date, that the government listed a summary of the contract.
The fine details
The contract describes the project as “Provision of data scientist capability to develop and support data sources and analysis to support MHCLG response to Covid-19”. The stated aim is to organise data-matching technologies and provide specialist support. Specifically, the remit (redacted) is described as:
1. Identification, exploration and setup of alternative data sources (e.g. social media, utility providers and telecom bills, credit rating agencies, etc.) as well as data provided by MHCLG for monitoring and forecasting
2. Application of data science and machine learning across data provided by MHCLG and alternative data sources
3. Development of interactive dashboards which summarise the above activities into an easily consumable interface to inform policy makers
The contract also states how Faculty would support the MHCLG with data scientists and other specialists, “with an estimated project duration of 3-6 months”. However, the contract states elsewhere that:
This Call-Off Contract will expire on the Expiry Date in the Order Form. It will be for up to 24 months from the Start Date unless Ended earlier.
Moreover, the contract adds that supplier staff will “work with the Buyer on any ongoing work”.
There appears to be nothing in the contract that specifically refers to anonymisation of data. The contract also makes it clear that Faculty staff working on the project are subject to security vetting.
From Vote Leave to coronavirus datasets to data-matching
Faculty was formerly known as Advanced Skills Initiative (ASI). In its earlier form, it worked on the Vote Leave project, whose director was Dominic Cummings (now chief political adviser to prime minister Boris Johnson). A search of the Electoral Commission database reveals that five invoices for five sets of work for Vote Leave, including ‘advertising’, were provided by ASI to Vote Leave.
According to the Guardian, Faculty is run:
by Marc Warner, whose brother Ben Warner, a data scientist, was reportedly recruited to Downing Street last year by [Downing Street special advisor Dominic] Cummings after running the data modelling for the Conservative party’s general election campaign.
Moreover, and significantly:
Ben Warner is a former senior employee at Faculty and is also said to have worked on Vote Leave.
Neither Ben Warner nor Downing Street special adviser and Vote Leave mastermind Cummings are medical scientists. Yet both attended meetings by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), set up to provide the government with advice on the coronavirus crisis.
Marc Warner admitted via an article in the Sunday Times that he too attended Sage meetings:
This is unbelievable. Marc Warner – brother of No 10 advisor, Ben, & head of firm that worked with Vote Leave – outs himself as another attendee of SAGE https://t.co/oCNvi1WFlp
— Carole Cadwalladr (@carolecadwalla) May 1, 2020
In short, Marc and Ben Warner attended SAGE meetings, were directly involved in the campaign that helped Johnson come to power, and Ben is now working for Downing Street.
Altogether, Faculty has been awarded seven other government contracts over the last year and a half. This includes, alongside controversial multi-billion-dollar firm Palantir, the coronavirus datasets projects.
Serious questions should be asked about the suitability of companies that appeared to work on dubious advertising campaigns or were contracted to intelligence organisations, such as GCHQ, to now work on government data-matching projects.