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NHS awards £23m two-year deal to controversial Peter Thiel AI firm Palantir

Legal challenges? Scrutiny? Ah, never mind those

The NHS has signed a £23m two-year contract with Palantir without scrutiny, even though the controversial AI firm's engagement with the UK health service was originally supposed to be a temporary, emergency measure to help address the COVID-19 pandemic.

The deal, published on 18 December, is already said to be providing the data platform to help with the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine.

It will attract attention because Palantir largely carries out information analysis and processing work for the defence and intelligence communities, often creating bespoke solutions such as digital-profiling tools for organisations like the CIA and ICE. The firm was founded by prominent Trump financier and PayPal investor Peter Thiel.

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Palantir, along with Google, Amazon and Microsoft, was among a group of tech firms contracted to build an NHS datastore in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. The contract seems to go against a commitment made by the government to stop work with the provider after the pandemic, which all hope should be contained within the next two years.

What happens to the 'emergency datastore'?

In March, an NHS blog said: "When the pandemic abates and the outbreak is contained, we will close the COVID-19 datastore. The Data Processing agreements put in place with the organisations listed above include the steps which need to be taken to cease processing and to either destroy or return data to NHS England and NHS Improvement once the public health emergency situation has ended."

According to independent global media platform openDemocracy, the government pushed the new Palantir deal through the teeth of its threatened lawsuit, which calls for transparency around the NHS COVID data deals. Working with nonprofit technology campaigners Foxglove, openDemocracy has threatened a judicial review into NHS tech contracts around the emergency "COVID-19 datastore" and major tech providers.

In June, government published the contracts between these private tech firms and the NHS, just days after campaigners fired legal shots over a lack of transparency. The contracts describe how the arrangements between the NHS and Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and AI firms Faculty and Palantir (which subcontracts to AWS) would operate.

In May, campaigners wrote to health secretary Matt Hancock calling for greater openness to do with the NHS's work with tech firms during the pandemic.

Groups including Liberty, openDemocracy and Privacy International said that promises of openness about the role of multiple private-sector tech firms in handling the health data of millions of UK citizens had not been fulfilled.

In response to new Palantir deal, Mary Fitzgerald, editor in chief of OpenDemocracy, said the UK government had ignored legal demands for more openness, raising the question: "What have they got to hide? Why are they so afraid of public scrutiny or debate over this?

"The government should just tell people about its plans for the NHS, explain the potential tech partnerships on the table – and seek the public's permission before it's too late," she said.

Cori Crider, Foxglove director, said: "We're deeply troubled by the government's lack of candour around these data deals. These deals aren't about the pandemic anymore. They're about the future of our NHS. People don't want to see the NHS – or their health data – privatised by stealth. Any long-term relationship with a tech firm should meet stringent tests of moral probity and value for citizens."

Sam Smith, coordinator at independent lobby group medConfidential, said there was no clarity on whether the deal was doing anything useful. He called for the publication of the data protection impact assessments of the data flows with Palantir and the Joint Biosecurity Centre, neither of which the Department of Health and Social Care are releasing.

The Register has contacted the Department of Health and Social Care for a statement.

In a blog, Ming Tang, the national director for data and analytics at NHS England and NHS Improvement, said the data store project had allowed the NHS to "develop tools and dashboards within a single integrated data platform to give decision-makers more accurate visibility into the status of the response, providing a better understanding of how the virus is spreading, when and where the healthcare system will face strain, and which interventions can best mitigate this."

She said the Palantir contract was already adapting its data platform "to help with the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine – enabling us to get supplies of the vaccine where they are needed and to plan the workforce to deliver them."

She added: "Just like many other beneficial changes, we need to retain this progress and continue to improve the way that data is managed and used by the system while maintaining high standards of public trust and promoting transparency." ®

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