Peter Thiel, co-founder and chairman of Palantir Technologies Inc., pauses during a news conference in Tokyo, Japan, on Monday, Nov. 18, 2019.
Kiyoshi Ota | Bloomberg | Getty Images
LONDON — A campaign is being launched to try to stop U.S. tech giant Palantir from working with the U.K.’s National Health Service.
The “No Palantir in Our NHS” campaign — launched at an event on Thursday — comes after Palantir partnered with the NHS on a Covid-19 “Data Store.” The project was designed to help the government and health service use data to monitor the spread of the virus.
Foxglove, which describes itself as a tech-justice nonprofit, is leading the campaign, while over 50 other organizations working on civil liberties, anti-racism, migrant justice and public health have also backed it.
“We got dozens of organizations to realize and agree that this company has no place in the NHS in the long term,” Cori Crider, the lawyer who co-founded Foxglove, told CNBC on Wednesday.
Palantir, which has been criticized by privacy campaigners and human rights groups on multiple occasions, declined to comment when contacted by CNBC. A spokesperson for the NHS did not respond.
What is Palantir?
Founded in 2003 by tech entrepreneurs including billionaire Peter Thiel — a Facebook board member who reportedly donated $1.25 million to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign — Palantir sells software that’s designed to help public and private organizations analyze huge quantities of data and pull out meaningful patterns and connections.
Since its inception, the $45 billion publicly listed company has supported spy agencies, border forces and militaries, with the finer details of contracts often kept a closely guarded secret. It has also been expanding into health.
In April 2018, Bloomberg published an article headlined: “Palantir Knows Everything About You.”
Named after the fictional “seeing stones” in “Lord of the Rings,” Palantir has been linked to everything from efforts to track down undocumented immigrants in the United States to the development of unmanned drones for bombings and intelligence.
“Their background has generally been in contracts where people are harmed, not healed,” Crider said.
Clive Lewis, a Labour Party member of Parliament and one of the campaign’s backers, accused Palantir of having an “appalling track record.”
“It’s built its business supporting drone and missile strikes, immigration raids and arrests, not the delivery and care of medicine,” Lewis told CNBC. “It’s got a questionable agenda, and I think that will have a negative impact on patient trust, particularly among minoritized communities who may feel a threat from big government.”
Palantir — which has been trying to grow its European business in recent years — has a significant presence in London’s Soho neighborhood, with hundreds of employees across multiple offices in the area.
Covid-19 Data Store
The Covid-19 Data Store project, which involves Palantir’s Foundry data management platform, began in March 2020 alongside other tech giants as the government tried to slow the spread of the virus across the U.K. It was sold as a short-term effort to predict how best to deploy resources to deal with the pandemic.
The contract was quietly extended in December, when the NHS and Palantir signed a £23 million ($34 million) two-year deal that allows the company to continue its work until December 2022.
The NHS was sued by political website openDemocracy in February over the contract extension. “December’s new, two-year contract reaches far beyond Covid: to Brexit, general business planning and much more,” the group said.
The NHS contract allows Palantir to help manage the data lake, which contains everybody’s health data for pandemic purposes.
“The reality is, sad to say, all this whiz-bang data integration didn’t stop the United Kingdom having one of the worst death tolls in the Western world,” said Crider. “This kind of techno solutionism is not necessarily the best way of making an NHS sustainable for the long haul.”
Patient data is “pseudonymized” before it is processed by Palantir’s software as part of an effort to protect patient privacy. The data management technique involves switching the original data set, with an alias or pseudonym. However, it is a reversible process that allows for re-identification if necessary, and some have questioned whether it’s enough. Palantir may argue that it isn’t interested in the patient data itself and that it only provides the platform that allows the NHS to analyze the data.
While Palantir is processing the patient data, the NHS remains the data owner, limiting what Palantir can do with it.
Pivot to health
There have been some signs that government appetite for limitless spend on security has started to wane, and Palantir may have lost a couple of deals as a result, Crider said, pointing to a report in The Guardian that highlights some of the difficulties the EU’s law agency had with Palantir’s software.
Crider believes the firm has been trying to find new sources of government contracts beyond security as a result. “They hit on a new possibility, which was health data,” she said.
The company was reportedly lobbying officials from the U.K. Department of Trade as well as health executives back in 2019. But it struggled to secure any contracts.
When the pandemic hit, however, the laws changed so that data sharing was done in a mandatory way, and for the first time in U.K. history everyone’s data was pooled into a huge lake. Procurement rules were also reportedly changed. “Palantir pounced and they managed to get in,” Crider said, adding that there was no bid or competitive tender.
Palantir’s interest in health was highlighted again on Thursday when the Financial Times reported that the company has taken a strategic stake in British health firm Babylon as part of a $4.2 billion blank-check deal to take the start-up public in the U.S.
Babylon CEO Ali Parsa told the newspaper that “nobody” has brought some of the tech that Palantir owns “into the realm of biology and health care.” Parsa, whose app offers a variety of health services to 24 million patients, added: “Their knowledge of health care can overhaul what we could do [together]. We wanted to take … the day-to-day biometrics of the human body and be able to construct a more preemptive image by building a digital twin of each of us.”
A boy runs past a mural supporting the NHS, by artist Rachel List, on the gates of the Hope & Anchor pub in Pontefract, Yorkshire, as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Danny Lawson | Getty Images
Crider believes the U.K. is at an inflexion point when it comes to health data.
From July 1, the NHS is planning to pool the full medical histories of 55 million patients in England into a single database that will be available to academic and third parties for research and planning. Patients have until June 23 to opt out. Campaigners said Friday the “data grab” violates patient trust, and they’re threatening to take legal action.
“The British public need to realize that we are now coming into a period where the future of the NHS health data, and the health data settlement of this country, is now kind of up for grabs and up for debate,” Crider said. “Companies have seen it for a while. Palantir don’t want to monetize the data they want to monetize the infrastructure, but there are other companies who absolutely do want to monetize access to the data.”