Is the data guardian hinting that Palantir should be ousted from NHS IT?

Nicola Byrne, the National Data Guardian, published a blogpost on the site on 24 August that seems to suggest Palantir should be excluded from the technology involved in the NHS Federated Data Platform.

NHS England envisages the proposed data platform as one that will mean “that every hospital trust and integrated care system (ICS) will have their own platform but they are able to connect and share information between them where this is helpful. For example, to discharge a patient from hospital into a care setting (when the appropriate data sharing agreements are in place).”

The contract award will be, according to NHS England, made in the autumn of this year.

Will it involve Palantir, which has done work for the NHS, including during the Covid-19 pandemic? Indeed the federated data platform will supersede the Covid-19 data store, which Palantir helped to build, using its data integration software, Foundry.

In the blogpost, Byrne welcomes the future platform, but registers a caveat: “If designed and delivered correctly, this new system could have a transformative impact on the NHS and help support its sustainability longer-term. However, unfortunately but understandably, it has been receiving some negative attention that merits a thoughtful, considered response”.

She continues: “Members of the public, healthcare professionals, journalists, MPs and campaign groups all continue to raise concerns about ethics, privacy, its likelihood of success, procurement, and cost. Some of these concerns have arisen because public discourse about one of the potential commercial suppliers, Palantir, has been particularly contentious”.

She does not say, in the post, whether she thinks that contention is justified or justifiable.

But she does conclude by saying: “This programme’s intentions are good, and I do not want the public discourse around it to become a polarised battleground.”

Well, who would want such polarisation?

Is this a veiled recommendation to ditch or exclude Palantir from the FDP precisely because it is a controversial supplier, regardless of the suitability of its technology? All other things being equal, should it be excluded because it is a controversy magnet?

It is clear that the libertarian privacy lobby has it in for Palantir because of its association with Peter Thiel, who is a member of the Republican Party, and the US security establishment. Another objection is that it is an American company, and not British.

It is not the only US IT supplier with connections to the US security establishment that is involved in UK public sector IT. It is well known that Oracle started out as a CIA project, and it has a huge presence in the UK public sector.

One could also adduce the supplier’s co-founder and CEO Alex Karp in the case for the liberal defence of Palantir. He is not a Trump supporter. Indeed, he has said he respects “nothing about the dude”. And wrote his PhD  in dialogue with the Marxian Frankfurt School tradition of Theodor Adorno and Jürgen Habermas.

And while he is avowedly pro-United States in terms of foreign policy, that is not unusual outside of the small circles of those who see the US as, by definition, in the bad camp of history – as opposed to, say, China or Russia.

Nevertheless, Byrne is right: “concerns have arisen because public discourse about one of the potential commercial suppliers, Palantir, has been particularly contentious”.

Maybe this game is not worth the candle? Even if Palantir’s technology is the best data integration tool for the job, the enterprise software world is not short of data integration tools.

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