Privacy International puts Palantir in the dock for NHS data analysis work

Civil liberties campaigner questions role of US data analytics specialist in health service’s data work in battle against Covid-19

Civil liberties campaigning group Privacy International is questioning the role of Silicon Valley data mining company Palantir in the NHS’s data analysis programme.

NHSX and NHS England Improvement reported at the end of March that they had engaged Palantir alongside Microsoft, Google and London-based artificial intelligence (AI) firm Faculty to build a “data platform” to make the anti-Covid-19 response as efficient and effective as possible.

Data will be gathered from sources including 111 calls and Covid-19 test results, according to a BBC report by Leo Kelion, technology desk editor.

Privacy International, Big Brother Watch, medConfidential, Foxglove and Open Rights Group have sent Palantir 10 questions about their work with the NHS during the public health crisis, and published them on the PI website.

The four privacy campaigning groups say they are “primarily interested in if and how Palantir will retain and use the data analysis gleaned from this work with the NHS”, adding: “We are interested in whether the company will use this analysis to strengthen its own proprietary systems.”

Among the 10 questions are: “Is Palantir obtaining access to any databases and/or records held by the NHS, such as online prescription systems, patient records, general practitioners’ files, etc?”, “Will Palantir retain the NHS data analysis or insights gleaned from this contract once this exercise is over?” and “Will Palantir be able to use the product trained under the agreement with NHS to improve other future products provided by Palantir?”

Privacy International said: “As Palantir says, in the spirit of ‘open and critical discussion’, we have asked them for key details about their current work with the NHS. It would be misleading and cynical for Palantir to offer services to the NHS without being fully transparent about how the company may benefit from the data analysis gleaned in this work, which they can then go on to profit from and strengthen their proprietary systems.”

Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, said in the Privacy International statement: “It is unacceptable that a large-scale project involving patient data is being pursued with Palantir in absence of stakeholder engagement or public transparency. Palantir and NHSX must be fully open and transparent about the ‘Covid-19 datastore’, the nature of contracts, the use of patient data, the confidentiality of 111 calls, and make details of any predictive analytics and anonymisation techniques available for public audit at the soonest possibility.” 

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Palantir Technologies UK is providing the NHS project with software, Palantir Foundry, that makes the front-end data platform to a data store specific to the current pandemic. Palantir Foundry is said to enable disparate data to be cleansed and integrated.

Palantir is controversial because it has been involved in such activities as the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement programme. Some of its own employees protested against this in 2019.

The Palo Alto-based firm was co-founded by leading Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel in 2003. And although its co-founder and CEO, Alex Karp, is a self-described socialist, the company’s client base in the CIA and FBI has made it controversial among civil libertarians.

Its name is derived from the crystal ball palantirs in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, one of which is wielded by Sauron, the dark lord of the fantasy tale.

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