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Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Who is getting all the government pandemic contracts?

It is said that the winners take the spoils, and with regards to the 2016 referendum on leaving the EU, that certainly seems to be the case.

The Guardian reports that an artificial intelligence firm hired to work on the Vote Leave campaign may analyse social media data, utility bills and credit rating scores as part of a £400,000 contract to help the government deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

The paper says that the company, Faculty, was awarded the contract by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government last month. However the full details of its work for the government are unknown because the published version of the contract was partly redacted.

Civil liberties groups want to know how private companies hired by the government during the pandemic are using confidential personal data:

The unredacted portion of the contract shows that the MHCLG said such work was likely to require data from “social media, utility providers and telecom bills, credit rating agencies” as well as from the government, but provides few other specifics.

It brings the number of government contracts awarded to Faculty to at least nine in the last two years. The contracts in total are worth at least £1.6m.

Three of these contracts relate to the provision of artificial intelligence services to inform government departments attempting to manage the impact of coronavirus.

Faculty, which has links to senior Tory figures in Downing Street and the Cabinet Office, declined to say how many contracts it had won in total from the government for work connected to the pandemic, nor how much the contracts were worth.

The latest contract was awarded directly to Faculty without other firms being given an opportunity to make a competitive bid. The ministry said there was an “urgent need to bring in additional analytics support to help inform our response to the coronavirus pandemic”.

Public bodies have been allowed to award contracts without a competitive tender during the pandemic as ministers believe that private firms need to be hired quickly to deal with the outbreak. The MHCLG contract, entitled “Data scientists for MHCLG Covid-19 response”, was awarded in April and will run until July.

It is this sort of secrecy on how personal data is being used that undermines the government's attempt to get a tracking app in play to combat COVID-19. Some transparency on contracts like these would be very welcome.
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