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Palantir once more in sights of civil libertarians over NHS Covid data store

The award of a new government contract to data analytics supplier Palantir on the back of its participation in the NHS Covid-19 data store has provoked Open Democracy into legal action, backed up by an exposure of lobbying activity that pre-dates the pandemic

Media organisations Open Democracy and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism have acted in unison to put in question the NHS and the UK state’s wider dealings with data mining company Palantir.

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 the FBI has made it controversial among civil libertarians.

In March 2020, the NHS confirmed it was working with Palantir, Microsoft and Google to improve its data analytics efforts and make its battle against the Covid-19 coronavirus more efficient and effective. From that work emerged the NHS Covid-19 Data Store.

NHS England’s web page on the store describes it like this: “The NHS Covid-19 Data Store sits on a Microsoft Azure platform under contract with NHS England and NHS Improvement. Within that secure cloud processing environment, Palantir (acting under instruction from NHS England) manage their platform which is called Foundry.

“Palantir have built analytical dashboards for access by NHS England and Improvement staff, together with staff in the following organisations working under contract: Faculty AI, McKinsey and Deloitte. Data which is pseudonymised is only available to staff working under contract with the organisations operating jointly under the NHSX banner. Palantir does not store the data itself, which remains under the control of the NHS.”

While it was reported, in March 2020, that NHSX and NHS England’s technical teams had built a back-end data store on Microsoft’s cloud platform, Azure, to “bring multiple data sources into a single, secure location”, it was Palantir Technologies UK that would provide the software, Palantir Foundry, that constitutes the front-end data platform. Palantir Foundry is said to enable disparate data to be cleansed and integrated.

“We’re taking the government to court because, right before Christmas, they quietly gave CIA-backed firm [Palantir] a major, long-term role in handling our personal health information, and in England’s cherished National Health Service”
Open Democracy

Open Democracy has now initiated legal proceedings against the UK government for extending the “emergency” and virtually pro bono (a nominal cost of £1) contract struck with Palantir at the height of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. The new contract, signed in December 2020, objects Open Democracy, is for two years and “reaches far beyond Covid: to Brexit, general business planning and much more”. The contract’s value for “data management platform services” is £23.5m.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has published a related story detailing lobbying by Palantir among senior NHS executives that pre-dates the coronavirus crisis and reaches back into 2019.

The Open Democracy organisation said, in a statement explaining why it is suing the government: “We’re taking the government to court because, right before Christmas, they quietly gave this CIA-backed firm a major, long-term role in handling our personal health information, and in England’s cherished National Health Service.”

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has revealed that Palantir’s UK boss, Louis Mosley, hosted a dinner attended by David Prior, chair of NHS England, on 2 July 2019. The bureau cited an email of which it has gained sight, in which Prior said: “Louis, thank you for hosting such an interesting dinner and also for the watermelon cocktails! If you can see ways where you could help us structure and curate our data so that it helps us deliver better care and provides a more insightful database for medical research do be in touch.”

As reported by the BBC, the legal case, which is being handled by law firm Foxglove on behalf of its client Open Democracy, turns on whether a fresh Data Protection Impact Assessment is required for the new contract.

“The government shouldn’t use the pandemic as an excuse to embed major tech firms like Palantir in the NHS without consulting the public, Foxglove director Cori Crider told the BBC.

“The datastore is the largest pool of patient data in UK history. It’s one thing to set it up on an emergency basis, it’s a different kettle of fish to give a tech firm like Palantir a permanent role in NHS infrastructure.”

Sky News cited an NHS spokesperson as saying: “The company is an accredited supplier to the UK public sector. The NHS completed a Data Protection Impact Assessment in April 2020, and an update will be published in due course.”

Palantir is not commenting on the story.

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