Of all the analytics firms in the world, why is Palantir getting its claws into UK health data?

Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee asked health secretary Matt Hancock, but he wasn't much help


Comment Most people are aware of some things and not aware of other things. But UK health secretary Matt Hancock isn't sure if he's aware of something or not.

The "something" in question is whether there are links between Palantir, the controversial military-linked US analytics company, and Cambridge Analytica, the UK analytics company at the heart of the Facebook data scandal which worked with Donald Trump's campaign in the run-up to his 2016 election.

It was posed by Dawn Butler, a Labour MP and member of the Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee, to which Hancock was giving evidence last week.

The health sec was there to see if there were any lessons to be learned from the UK's management of the COVID-19 pandemic, which left the country with one of the highest death rates for the disease worldwide. There are many, but they are for others to judge.

Butler, however, touched on a subject we've been covering at The Reg for some years. She also asked about links between Palantir and Faculty, the AI company which worked with the Vote Leave campaign supported by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Hancock didn't know if he was aware of any links there either.

"I'm not... erm... I don't think I'm aware of that, no," he told the committee.

One doesn't have to go too far to figure out if there were any links. Palantir did work with the disgraced Cambridge Analytica, according evidence from a whistleblower, and later, according to its own admissions. "There were senior Palantir employees that were also working on the Facebook data," Christopher Wylie, a former contractor for Cambridge Analytica, testified before British lawmakers in March 2018. "There were Palantir staff who would come into the office and work on the data."

Palantir denied it at the time, but later told the NYT: “We learned today that an employee, in 2013-2014, engaged in an entirely personal capacity with people associated with Cambridge Analytica. We are looking into this and will take the appropriate action.”

As for Faculty, it worked with SCL Elections, the affiliate of Cambridge Analytica, on projects about voter preferences during the US presidential election. This video here shows ASI (Faculty) fellow Jack Hansom "outlining a process to predict personality traits from Facebook Likes".

Faculty said of this in a 2018 statement: "In response to recent reports in the media concerning Cambridge Analytica, we wish to clarify that ASI's [Faculty's former name] only relationship was with its parent company SCL, which was one of over 110 companies and organisations that have recruited from an internship programme which ASI organises."

But should Hancock have been aware of the links between Palantir, which won a contract to set up and manage the NHS Digital's COVID-19 data store, and Cambridge Analytica? Our own reports at the time suggest the minister was aware of the broader scandal.

After all, Hancock himself tabled an amendment allowing the ICO to request that a data controller or processor hands over information within 24 hours, after public derision over the time it took the Commissioner to raid Cambridge Analytica's offices.

He might have been aware of the links, but he just doesn't think he is aware of any. We don't know.

Equally opaque was the line of Butler's questioning. She waved a copy of Kyle Taylor's Little Black Book of Data and Democracy and offered to provide Hancock with a copy.

She then asked if "Palantir, Faculty or Cambridge Analytica or any other offshoot companies were supplying public data voter intentions, anything like that, to the Conservative Party."

This question, which offered little by way of a factual hook, was easily batted aside by Hancock, who said: "This has absolutely nothing to do with it, and where your accusations are unfounded and wrong is the companies involved in improving the way that we use data in government... have carte blanche. That is not true because all of this work is done within strict, careful protocols to make sure that we can use data to save lives."

There's lots we don't know about Palantir, whose founder Peter Thiel helped fund the Trump campaign, and its role in the NHS, but there are some things we do know about the CIA-backed firm.

It was one of two small data science companies to get a role in the NHS COVID-19 data store project – the other being Faculty, which also has political links. Its former commercial principal Ben Warner worked closely with Dominic Cummings during his time advising the prime minister, and was also closely involved with the Brexit campaign, so much so he was dubbed by The Times as the "Leave campaign's data geek." Ben Warner's brother, current Faculty CEO Marc Warner, was also brought in to advise on Britain's COVID-19 strategy.

It is also true that the contracts related to the data store – including those with much bigger companies like AWS, Microsoft, and Google – were only published after threats of legal action.

We know Palantir signed a two-year deal with the government, seemingly without competition, taking its role well beyond the current coronavirus crisis (we hope).

We also know the government only committed to limit Palantir's role in the data store after campaigners sought a judicial review, although the government said the legal action had nothing to do with it.

On Friday, none other than Cummings himself waded into the debate, posting on Twitter that "the data dashboard that Faculty built with NHSX/Palantir… did NOT use ANY personal data, none went to Faculty/Palantir to make it. It worked on metrics like 'number of cases in each hospital'. It was for *management decision-making*, nothing to do with individual data."

He also alluded to the recently delayed GP data grab (General Practice Data for Planning and Research, GPDPR), saying: "There are big questions re NHS-Digital & plans for *patient data* but this must NOT be confused with *covid dashboard which has NO patient data*, abandoning it [would] be disastrous [and] kill people. Sadly some campaigners deliberately conflate all this [and] spread misinformation."

Now, it is not for us to comment on whether the man who masterminded Vote Leave's Brexit campaign is in any position to comment about spreading misinformation. He's right to point out that the COVID-19 data store and GPDPR are not the same.

But there are questions we should be asking.

The first, most obviously, is: why Palantir? Are there not other data analytics companies out there with similar technical capabilities but without the political baggage?

We asked an analyst at a global research firm who'd been covering Palantir whether there was anything unique about the company's technology that merited its special treatment. He said it was unique in some "delivery capabilities" and that "15 years ago they were way ahead of the market" but now other companies "have developed a lot of the same capabilities."

There are lessons for Butler and others rightly concerned about the role of private analytics firms with political links at the heart of public-sector data programmes. We cannot be drawn into seeing everything as a conspiracy. At the same time, not everything is a coincidence. To figure out which, you have to be asking the right questions. ®


Other stories you might like

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2021