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Wed 3 March 2021

Formerly known as ASI Data Science, the company once responsible for spreading Vote Leave’s propaganda is now being paid for research into harmful digital content reports Sam Bright

A controversial data firm that worked on the Vote Leave campaign during the 2016 EU Referendum has won a £2.4 million Government contract to research “online harms”.

On 10 February, the European Union contracts portal revealed that Faculty Science Limited had been awarded a multi-million-pound deal by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

The contract states that Faculty will be tasked with exploring whether and how data-sharing can “support the development of technologies that keep users safe online”. This will involve producing a report into the benefits of removing barriers to data-sharing about online harms – such as disinformation, terrorism, hate speech, and advocacy of self-harm.

“The report will set out how online harms data can be made available to a wider number of companies for the purposes of developing innovative online safety technologies,” the tender reads.

Faculty will work as part of a consortium to trial this theory, by setting up “practical and innovative data and social science projects”.

One of the firms working alongside Faculty on this project – leading the “discovery” phase of the scheme – is called PUBLIC. Exploring how tech can be used to solve public problems, PUBLIC is run by Daniel Korski, a former special advisor to Prime Minister David Cameron.

The contract is enthusiastic about the self-evident benefits of data-sharing in this field – despite the unique sensitivity of data related to harmful online content and its victims.

Faculty AI was previously known as ASI Data Science, and the firm worked with the Vote Leave campaign – run by former Downing Street chief aide Dominic Cummings and fronted by Boris Johnson – by providing data science and machine learning technology

The Vote Leave campaign has been the subject of various complaints and investigations into its use of data, not all of them conclusive. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) however did impose a £40,000 fine on Vote Leave for sending unlawful text messages.

Vote Leave was also accused of perpetuating a number of “misleading narratives” during the EU Referendum campaign – notably that remaining in the EU would lead to high numbers of potentially criminal Turkish immigrants entering the UK, and that the country would recoup £350 million a week in the event of Brexit, to be spent on the NHS.

The latter was labelled a “clear misuse of official statistics” by the UK Statistics Authority, while Turkey isn’t a member of the EU and hasn’t become one in the five years since the Brexit vote – therefore isn’t subject to free movement rules.

While the narratives of the campaign would have been drafted by political and communications staff – and there’s no evidence that Faculty AI formulated these messages – data firms were evidently relied upon to distribute them to a large online audience.

In August, Byline Times reported that the Government was now promoting Faculty as an “online safety provider” with a specialism in countering disinformation.


Digital Largesse

Faculty evidently impressed Cummings and Johnson during the campaign, for one reason or another.

The firm has been awarded several Government contracts since the referendum, to assist various department with data science.

In recent months, for example, the firm has won a £2.3 million contract to support the NHS’ ‘artificial intelligence lab’, as well as a £2 million deal to provide “data science and data exploitation” services to the Home Office’s ‘innovation law enforcement’ division.

Faculty has also worked with the NHS and the Department of Health and Social Care during the Coronavirus pandemic. The company secured a £400,000 contract to analyse social media, utilities and telecommunications data to figure out how the Coronavirus is manifesting locally and has developed a Coronavirus forecasting tool that can apparently forecast local spikes in the disease.

Perhaps as a result, Faculty has also been included on a framework agreement – essentially a shortlist of firms that can be contracted to provide elements of work – to provide IT solutions in the health service. The agreement, that includes areas such as radiology, pathology and cardiology, is worth a total of £591 million.

And Faculty has not just benefitted from Government largesse. A company owned and controlled by Cummings paid more than £250,000 for the services of the artificial intelligence firm. Both Cummings and Faculty have refused to say why they were commissioned by Cummings’ company, Dynamic Maps, though Faculty insists that it has received no preferential treatment from Cummings or the Government.

For his part, Cummings is still in contempt of Parliament for refusing to give evidence to MPs investigating fake news and the dissemination of misinformation during the EU Referendum campaign. Damian Collins, the former chair of the DCMS committee, said that Cummings had shown a “total disregard” for the authority of Parliament.

The ties between Faculty and Downing Street also do not end there, however. After taking over as Prime Minister in the Summer of 2019, Boris Johnson hired Faculty data scientist Ben Warner as an advisor on data and technology. His brother, Marc Warner, is the co-founder and chief executive of Faculty. Records show that Ben regularly attends the meetings of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) – the group of scientists that has played a leading role in shaping the Government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re delighted to partner on the Online Data Safety Initiative that helps provide access to data for good; for those that need it to be able to build tools which ultimately make the internet a safer place for everybody,” a Faculty spokesperson told Byline Times. “We have procured all of our public-sector contracts via the correct channels and as part of competitive procurement processes.”

“With regard to the Vote Leave campaign, we did not anticipate that working as a contractor for an official campaign would come to be seen as so controversial. In 2018 we decided not to take on any more political work going forward. We are focused on the future and supporting over 220 private and public sector customers around the world. We no longer work for any political parties or on any political campaigns.”

“Faculty was awarded the contract following a fair, open and competitive tender process in line with Public Contracts Regulations 2015,” a DCMS spokesperson said. “There was interest from a number of organisations and Faculty succeeded after providing the strongest bid.”

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