Peter Thiel, Co-Founder and Chairman of Palantir Technologies Inc., is on break during a press conference in Tokyo, Japan on Monday, November 18, 2019.
Kiyoshi Ota | Bloomberg | Getty Images
LONDON – A campaign is launched to try to stop US tech giant Palantir from working with the UK’s National Health Service.
The “No Palantir in Our NHS” campaign – launched at an event on Thursday – comes after Palantir worked with the NHS on a Covid-19 “data store”. The project should help the government and health service use data to monitor the spread of the virus.
Foxglove, which describes itself as a nonprofit technology justice system, is leading the campaign, while over 50 other organizations advocating for civil liberties, anti-racism, migrant justice and public health have supported them.
“We got dozens of organizations to realize and agree that this company has no place in the NHS in the long run,” Cori Crider, the attorney who co-founded Foxglove, told CNBC on Wednesday.
Palantir, who has received multiple criticism from privacy activists and human rights groups, declined to comment when contacted by CNBC. An NHS spokesman did not respond.
What is Palantir?
Palantir was founded in 2003 by tech entrepreneurs like billionaire Peter Thiel – a Facebook board member who reportedly donated $ 1.25 million to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign – Palantir sells software designed to help public and private organizations do this to analyze huge amounts of data and discover meaningful patterns and connections.
Since its inception, the publicly traded $ 45 billion company has assisted espionage agencies, border troops and the military, often keeping the intricacies of the contracts top secret. It has spread to health as well.
In April 2018, Bloomberg published an article entitled “Palantir Knows Everything About You”.
Named after the fictional “Seeing Stones” in “Lord of the Rings,” Palantir has been associated with everything from efforts to track down undocumented immigrants in the United States to developing unmanned drones for bombing and intelligence agencies.
“Her background has generally been in contracts where people are hurt and not healed,” Crider said.
Clive Lewis, a Labor MP and a supporter of the campaign, accused Palantir of having “an appalling track record”.
“It built its business to support drone and missile strikes, raids and arrests of immigrants, not the delivery and supply of medicines,” Lewis told CNBC. “It has a questionable agenda, and I think that will have a negative impact on patient confidence, especially in minority communities that may feel threatened by major government.”
Palantir, which has been trying to expand its European business in recent years, has a strong presence in the London borough of Soho with hundreds of employees in multiple offices in the area.
Covid-19 data storage
The Covid-19 data store project, which involves Palantir’s data management platform Foundry, began alongside other tech giants in March 2020 as the government tried to slow the spread of the virus in the UK. It was sold as a short-term attempt to predict how best to use resources to deal with the pandemic.
The contract was tacitly renewed in December when the NHS and Palantir signed a two-year £ 23 million ($ 34 million) deal that allows the company to continue operations through December 2022.
The NHS was sued by the political website openDemocracy in February for the contract renewal. “The new, two-year contract from December extends far beyond Covid: on Brexit, general business planning and much more,” said the group.
The NHS contract allows Palantir to help manage the data lake, which contains everyone’s health data for pandemic purposes.
“The reality, sadly, is that all this rapid data integration hasn’t stopped the UK from having one of the worst death tolls in the western world,” said Crider. “This kind of techno-solutionism is not necessarily the best way to make an NHS sustainable in the long term.”
Patient data is “pseudonymized” before it is processed by Palantir software to protect patient privacy. The data management technique involves changing the original record with an alias or pseudonym. However, it is a reversible process that allows re-identification if necessary, and some have questioned whether this is enough. Palantir could argue that it is not interested in the patient data itself and is just providing the platform that allows the NHS to analyze the data.
While Palantir processes the patient data, the NHS remains the data owner, which limits Palantir’s capabilities.
Rely on health
There have been some signs that the government’s appetite for unlimited spending on security has waned and Palantir may have lost some business as a result, Crider said, referring to a report in The Guardian highlighting some of the difficulties facing the agency had with Palantir software.
As a result, Crider believes the company has been trying to find new sources of government contracts that go beyond safety. “You came across a new possibility, which is health data,” she said.
The company reportedly lobbied UK Department of Commerce officials and health managers as early as 2019. However, it struggled to get contracts.
However, when the pandemic broke out, the laws changed so that data sharing was mandatory, and for the first time in British history the data was all pooled in one giant lake. The procurement rules have also reportedly changed. “Palantir pounced and they managed to get in,” said Crider, adding that there was no bid or tender.
Palantir’s interest in health was re-emphasized Thursday when the Financial Times reported that the company had acquired a strategic stake in British healthcare company Babylon as part of a $ 4.2 billion blank check deal to bring the startup into the UK To bring USA to the public
Ali Parsa, CEO of Babylon, told the newspaper that “no one” had brought any of the technology Palantir possessed “into the fields of biology and health care.” Parsa, whose app provides a variety of health services to 24 million patients, added, “Your knowledge of health care can improve our performance [together]. We wanted to … take the everyday biometrics of the human body and be able to create a preventive picture by creating a digital twin of each of us. “
A boy runs past a mural supporting artist Rachel List’s NHS just outside the Hope & Anchor pub in Pontefract, Yorkshire while the UK remains on lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
Danny Lawson | Getty Images
Crider believes the UK is at a tipping point when it comes to health data.
Beginning July 1, the NHS plans to bring the full medical histories of 55 million patients in England together into a single database available to scientists and third parties for research and planning. Patients have until June 23 to opt out. Activists said Friday that the “data collection” violated patient trust and threatened legal action.
“The UK public needs to realize that we are now entering a time when the future of NHS health records and the billing of this country’s health records are now somehow winning and debatable,” said Crider. “Businesses have been around for a while. Palantir doesn’t want to monetize the data, they want to monetize the infrastructure, but there are other companies who are desperate to monetize access to the data.”