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Thu 24 June 2021

Lawyers acting for the NHS have conceded it cannot offer companies such as Palantir a long-term NHS role without consulting the public

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) has backed down over plans to give the controversial US tech giant Palantir – owned by the Donald Trump-supporting American billionaire owner Peter Thiel – further major data contracts worth £23 million without public consultation.

The shift in position by Matt Hancock’s department follows a long legal wrangle with openDemocracy and Foxglove, an open tech group, which applied for a judicial review of the decision by the DHSC to give Palantir the contract – without competitive tender – to set up a database that could involve holding masses of patient details.

Details of the highly controversial contract awarded to Palantir were published by Byline Times in January. It showed that the Government agreed to pay up-front for a ‘command structure’ that would provide a permanent database covering equipment orders, the vaccination programme and adult social care provision.

As part of the contract, the data would be widely shared across Whitehall and with local government. But there was no consultation about protecting patients’ data rights, despite data protection law requiring the Government, through a ‘data protection impact assessment’, to consult the public and consider whether handling sensitive health data on a national scale in this way is fair and lawful. No such exercise was carried out in this case.

Palantir, which has contracts with the CIA, also recently obtained a contract with the UK Border Force. It got involved with the NHS by offering to work on the ‘Test and Trace’ app.

Under an agreement with openDemocracy, the DHSC has now agreed not to expand Palantir’s work on the NHS datastore beyond COVID without notifying the public and that it would conduct new analysis of whether any expansion would be in compliance with data protection law. It has also agreed to engage the public properly, including via patient juries, about whether a company such as Palantir is appropriate for a long-term role in the NHS. 

The DHSC has however refused to disclose which databases, already held by the NHS, Palantir has access to. This was redacted in the contract.

The development comes amidst the planning of major changes to the NHS by the Government, with new legislation to centralise its control under ministerial direction. The changes have already begun to take place – as seen by the announcement of a new UK Health and Security Agency, combining the Test and Trace programme and the new Joint Biosecurity Centre. This also has a huge database which the department insists is not connected to the Palantir database.

“After months of legal battles for transparency over these massive NHS data deals, we’re glad the UK Government has finally admitted it had no business installing a controversial ‘spy tech’ firm like Palantir permanently in our NHS without asking people first,” Mary Fitzgerald, editor-in-chief of openDemocracy, said.

“But there’s still work to do. Deep concerns remain about whether Palantir, with its chequered history and close ties to the security services, will undermine trust in the NHS – and damage public health as a result.”

Martha Dark, Foxglove director, added: “Make no mistake: if we don’t deal with Palantir today, it’ll be Google tomorrow. If you believe Matt Hancock, we’re on the brink of a revolution over how this country’s health data is handled. But who will this brave new world benefit? We’ve all got to speak up if we want our future NHS to serve patients, not profit.”

Byline Times has contacted the Department of Health and Social Care for comment.

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