UK gov hired Vote Leave AI firm to analyse Brits' tweets

House of Lords

Privacy campaigners have expressed concern over a government contract that involves collecting and analysing social media data for coronavirus research.

The contract was awarded to an AI-firm called Faculty, which was hired by Dominic Cummings for the Vote Leave campaign in 2016.

The initial contract was spotted by Big Brother Watch in July but its exact nature wasn't clear as the document was redacted. The privacy group approached Lord Strasburger, who raised the issue in the House of Lords.

As a result, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) - the department that awarded the contract to Faculty - published an unredacted copy of the contract on 27 July.

It describes the work as "topic analysis of social media to understand public perception and emerging issues of concern to HGM arising from the COVID-19 crisis". The data pulled from this is then fed through a machine learning algorithm, according to the contract.

"This is effectively AI-powered mass political surveillance, and it's been done in a very secretive way, apparently to inform policy," said Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch.

"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."

The MHCLG paid Faculty £400,000 for the work, but Carlo suggested that the method was flawed: "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."

IT Pro has approached Faculty but has not yet received a response.

This is one of a number of contracts the AI company has been awarded by the government. Previously, it was drafted in to help create "coronavirus datastore" using NHS data.

"We are satisfied that the service provided by Faculty was of a high standard, and delivered on value for money," an MHCLG spokesperson said.

Bobby Hellard

Bobby Hellard is ITPro's Reviews Editor and has worked on CloudPro and ChannelPro since 2018. In his time at ITPro, Bobby has covered stories for all the major technology companies, such as Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook, and regularly attends industry-leading events such as AWS Re:Invent and Google Cloud Next.

Bobby mainly covers hardware reviews, but you will also recognize him as the face of many of our video reviews of laptops and smartphones.