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Privacy campaigners hail legal victory over Hancock and Palantir

Civil liberties organisation OpenDemocracy says it has scored a legal victory over health secretary Matt Hancock regarding the involvement of Palantir in the NHS Covid-19 data store

Civil liberties organisation OpenDemocracy has trumpeted a legal victory over Matt Hancock regarding the NHS Covid-19 data store’s use of software from data mining company Palantir.

OpenDemocracy engaged legal firm Foxglove to initiate legal proceedings, in February 2021, against the UK government for extending the “emergency” contract struck with Palantir at the height of the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, for a nominal fee of £1.

A new contract, signed in December 2020, objected Open Democracy, was 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” was £23.5m, but Open Democracy now claims that the contract may not be extended without further consultation,

“They [the government] have pressed pause, committing not to extend Palantir’s contract beyond Covid without consulting the public,” they said on their website. “There will be no more mission creep without assessing our rights. They have also agreed to engage the public, via patient juries, about whether firms like Palantir are appropriate for a long-term role in the NHS at all.”

The organisation objects to what it describes as the Trumpian politics of Palantir founder Peter Thiel, also a co-founder of PayPal, and an early investor in Facebook.

“Our fight has been about trust. Palantir was founded by a Trump-backing billionaire called Peter Thiel,” it said. “The firm has a deep and controversial history with US police, and has recently landed a new contract supporting UK border enforcement.”

The organisation also refers to vaccine hesitancy among black and ethnic minority communities. “Trust in health services is vital. A long-term role for Palantir in the NHS risks eroding trust in key communities right when the government needs it most.”

Read more about Palantir and the NHS

Open Democracy added that part of the purpose of its legal challenge was for “the government to complete and publish a robust data protection impact assessment into any new contract, making clear what of our health data is being shared, with whom, and what safeguards there are, as data protection law requires”.

“The government has now conceded that both steps are required – but there is far more work to be done to ensure that this consultation is wide, deep and representative across NHS users,” it said.

Palantir is not the only US tech firm involved in the NHS Covid-19 data store, which was set up by NHS England and NHSX at the end of March 2020 to aggregate a variety of health datasets to combat coronavirus. It includes lab test data from Public Health England, data from the Covid-19 Hospitalisation in England Surveillance System, and from the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre.

As well as Palantir, which provides data integration platform Foundry, the project involves Microsoft, Google, the ANS Group, McKinsey, Deloitte and London-based AI firm Faculty.

Palantir is controversial among civil liberties campaigners. Open Democracy cites its “support for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s brutal regime of deportations”.

Nevertheless, its CEO, Alex Karp, describes himself as a socialist and a progressive, and has a PhD in social theory from Goethe University Frankfurt – known as the home of the Institute for Social Research, the so-called “Frankfurt School” of Marxism, famously associated with Jürgen Habermas. Karp trained in that tradition, and described himself as “an academic by proclivity” in an interview with CNBC at Davos in 2019.

In the same interview, he summed up what he described as Palantir’s pro-US principles: “We believe states are sovereign, we believe they need security and we believe in the West.” Of Donald Trump, Karp has said: “I respect nothing about the dude.”

Update: 31 March 2020

Computer Weekly received this statement, from the NHS:

An NHS spokesperson said: “Actually Open Democracy has had to drop its court case unilaterally as it was apparent even to them that the NHS has always acted in accordance with its legal responsibilities. They therefore stood no chance of succeeding in their completely spurious claim. It would be more honest if they actually came clean with their crowdfunders that far from 'winning' this case they had no choice but to drop it when they realised they hadn’t a leg to stand on."

In response to that NHS comment, Martha Dark, director at Foxglove said:

“In the last 12 months openDemocracy asked the government time and time again to consult the public about the datastore. Their response was continuously that they were not required to. If they had planned to engage the public about the future of the datastore and Palantir's role in it before being sued, they had literally months of legal correspondence in which to tell us that was their plan. They didn't.

"Make no mistake, the government have now agreed to consult the public because of this case. This is just the start of the democratic debate we need about Palantir's role in the NHS - a few patient juries aren't enough - but they had refused to give an inch about the public's proper role until we sued them, so this is an important principle conceded.

"And we invite them to publish their legal correspondence with us in full so the public can see their formal position before they were sued - versus after."

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