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21 May 2020

Secret data and the future of public health: why the NHS has turned to Palantir

The data-mining company Palantir is one of several businesses that has been enlisted to build the Covid-19 “data store” conceived by NHSX.

By Oscar Williams

In May 2003, the venture capitalist Peter Thiel and four co-founders launched the data-mining company Palantir. Named after an all-seeing crystal ball in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and initially partially funded by the CIA, the company has secured a series of contentious but lucrative public sector contracts in the US, covering predictive policing, migrant surveillance and the development of battlefield software. But 17 years later, it is Palantir’s work with the British government that is now under scrutiny.

In late March, the BBC revealed that the company, which is valued at more than £9bn, was one of several businesses, including Google, Microsoft, Amazon and the London data analysis company Faculty, that had been enlisted to build the Covid-19 “data store”. The project, which draws on 1,000 data sources per day, including anonymised Covid-19 test results and patient information, was conceived by NHSX, the National Health Service’s digital transformation unit, to assess and predict demand.

NHSX hopes the project will guide government strategy and allow hospitals to coordinate the distribution of ventilators and other resources in the fight against coronavirus.

The project may aid the NHS’s response to the crisis, but there are concerns over data privacy, lack of accountability and the long-term impacts on the health service. 

More than 8,000 people have signed a petition for the government to “release details of the secret data deals”. The Department of Health said on 14 May it would need another 20 days to consider whether to release the data-sharing agreements, while assessing the balance between public and “commercial interests”. 

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Palantir and Faculty’s involvement with the NHS has drawn attention because they have played a large role in the project; Palantir provides the data engineering services collating the various anonymised datasets, while Faculty analyses the aggregated data. But the scrutiny is also driven by the companies’ political associations.

The brother of Faculty’s chief executive is Ben Warner, who reportedly worked with Dominic Cummings on Vote Leave. Warner used to work for Faculty and is now a data science adviser to Downing Street. Palantir, meanwhile, has been of interest to Cummings since 2015, when he reportedly told Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, he wanted to build “the Palantir of politics”. 

Thiel also has close links to the US government. A co-founder of Paypal and an early investor in Facebook, he was one of the few figures in Silicon Valley to publicly back Donald Trump, reportedly donating $1.25m to support his 2016 campaign. In 2009, he wrote that he stands “against confiscatory taxes, totalitarian collectives, and the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual”.

As NS Tech reported in April, 45 Palantir engineers have been working on the Covid-19 data store, and there is speculation that it can expect to win further contracts after the crisis.
NHSX has vowed that all the data processed by the companies involved in the project will be destroyed or returned to the NHS once the pandemic has passed. But a source close to the project suggested Palantir could be retained by the NHS to provide similar data-mining services. 

Critics of the government’s project claim there is an absence of accountability around the contracts. It was reported in April that the deal did not go to competitive tender. Palantir has not previously worked with the NHS, but has been developing expertise in the UK healthcare space for at least two years.

The project’s defenders say Palantir is well placed to process sensitive data, given that it is trusted by intelligence agencies, such as the CIA. A more pressing concern according to some observers is what the deal might mean for the health service’s future. 

“This goes beyond privatisation,” said Lina Dencik, co-director of Cardiff University’s Data Justice Lab. “What this will do… is to increase dependency on [Palantir’s] technological infrastructure over time. The implementation of these technologies are restructuring organisational practices in such a way that risks displacing public infrastructure and the way policy is made. This gives [Palantir] enormous power in a different way to typical outsourcing.”

Such fears have been fuelled by the NHS’s complicated history with tech providers, as well as reports that the New York Police Department struggled to obtain analysis in a standardised format from Palantir after its contract came to an end in 2017.

Palantir did not respond to a request for comment about the dispute, but said that customers’ “data and analysis are available to them at all times in an open and non-proprietary format”.

Palantir’s relationship with the NHS is likely to thrive under the Johnson administration. In Matt Hancock, it has a health secretary whose role as cheerleader for the tech sector has already raised eyebrows. 

In Cummings, it also has a dedicated supporter who would like to remould the state in the image of Silicon Valley. The Covid-19 data store might be Palantir’s first deal with the NHS, but it won’t be the last. 

This article appears in the 20 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Moving Left Show