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Fri 17 September 2021

Peter Thiel’s Palantir and an AI-company linked to Dominic Cummings combined have won public sector contracts worth over £100 million – including contracts connected to NHS data. Max Colbert reports with The Citizens

Two controversial tech companies have been awarded public sector contracts worth over £100 million, an investigation by The Citizens for Byline Times can reveal. 

Mapping the full extent of US military-linked analytics firm Palantir Technologies’ and AI modelling outfit Faculty’s expansion into the UK’s public sector, this 16-month long project has shown their reach being far greater than previously reported. 

It has revealed that, since 2009, Peter Thiel’s data integration firm Palantir has been awarded at least £94m from the public purse. Contracts include work with the NHS, DHSC, the police, Cabinet Office, Ministry of Defence, and with intelligence operatives at GCHQ.

The investigation also shows that since 2018 the AI-company Faculty has won 20 different public sector contracts worth £11.2 million – including work for the Home Office, DHSC, DCMS, Cabinet Office and Transport for London. In total, Faculty has won contracts from at least 11 different public sector bodies. 

The awards and levels of access granted to both firms saw a marked increase in the pandemic, with 11 of Faculty’s contracts, and seven of Palantir’s – worth £9.2m and £49m respectively – issued in the past year alone.


Gaining Critical Mass

Palantir was founded in 2003 by libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel, before launching in the UK in 2009. Its early funding was reportedly provided by the US Central Intelligence Agency’s venture arm.

Since then, Palantir has become a ubiquitous presence in the defence and intelligence infrastructure of the US. There it has supplied software to the Department of Defence, National Security Agency (NSA), Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), Air Force, Marine Corps, Special Operations Command, Army, Police and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In particular, its work with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has drawn heavy criticism from both within the company and from the public at large.

The company has recently won numerous contracts within the UK public sector. The largest so far has been with the Ministry of Defence, with £43 million in contracts awarded since 2015,  including a previously unreported £4 million with the Submarine Delivery Agency in April 2020. Its contracts with the UK’s Cabinet Office are now worth £21.4 million, including several extensions to historic contracts. The National Health Service (NHS) and Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) contracts are worth some £24.9 million.

Palantir has also undertaken trials with UK police forces, built “intelligence hub” software for local councils worth £4.5million, and is featured as one of several suppliers building the framework for the new Crown Commercial Service (CCS) platform – an agreement worth some £1.2 billion.

Alongside this corporate growth comes another player, Faculty Science (previously ASI) – a London based AI startup launched in 2014. Its founder Marc Warner worked on the 2016 Vote Leave campaign, and has known ties to former No 10 special adviser Dominic Cummings. Faculty is also known to have been involved with other Conservative-linked organisations including Hanbury Strategy and SCL Elections – an affiliate arm of the now defunct and controversial firm Cambridge Analytica.

In the last four years, Faculty has won contracts with a range of Westminster departments. Its biggest customer is the DHSC, where it has secured £3.8 million worth of contracts. Its work for the Home Office is now over the £3 million mark, and a further £2.6m has been awarded in contracts by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). 

Smaller contracts won since its launch include with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (£513,200); Cabinet Office (£435,000); Ministry of Housing (£400,000); Transport for London (£165,000); the British Business Bank (£128,000); the Centre for Data, Ethics and Innovation (£125,000); Defra (£50,000); and Future Cities Catapult (£32,000). 

Critics have repeatedly expressed concern about the involvement of both Palantir and Faculty within the NHS, after DHSC published a £23m contract for Palantir to continue working with vast reams of patient data until at least 2023. This was in spite of government promises that Palantir’s involvement would be just a short-term “emergency” response. 

The Government has agreed to “press pause” on further similar contract extensions. But concerns with Palantir’s Foundry software – which underpins the Covid-19 datastore – are already being heard. NHS staff have voiced concerns over lack of transparency and their limited access to datasets on the platform. Faculty’s involvement with the NHS has also raised concerns, including their building an Early Warning System (EWS) to track supplies, modelling health information fed into the datastore, and working on a National Covid-19 Chest Imaging Database (NCCID) to enable the adoption of AI as part of the pandemic response.


Data Processors or Data Controllers?

The Government offers reassurances to its critics, saying Palantir and Faculty are “data-processors” as opposed to “data controllers”. It argues that the information utilised by the two companies is “anonymised” and, as such, cannot be abused. However, critics say this argument ignores two fundamental problems.

First, they are concerned that anonymised data, in the right hands, can easily be reversed-engineered to reveal personal details. 

Second, they argue that the level of anonymity of the data is, in part, down to how effectively the data is managed and how it is used by the real data controllers. In the case of the NHS projects that controller is ultimately the UK Government. So, while the loudest public concerns about NHS data security is focused on patient data being sold-off – as is the concern with the GP data-grab – some argue there are bigger ethical questions at stake. 

One worry is surrounding firms with effective “spy-ops” capability being given access to public datasets under the supervision of central Government. With such firms’ software being potentially used extensively, the access such firms might have to information – and the potential for that information to fall into the wrong hands – appears unprecedented.

Palantir’s most recent Crown Commercial Service (CCS) contract, for example, gives them access to a vast amount of back-end public sector data. The CCS provides software across Government departments and UK public sector bodies, allowing direct purchase of commercial services of more than 5,000 suppliers to more than 17,000 customer organisations. 

Lucie Audibert, law officer at Privacy International referred to that deal as completing Palantir’s relentless deployment into UK Government and public institutions’ operations”.

“With public scrutiny of Palantir’s products and services still lacking,” she was reported as saying, “and reports of Palantir’s products having been used for human rights violations around the world, this is of great concern.”

Palantir’s aggressive expansion is increasingly mirroring its US operations. For example, the Cabinet Office hired Palantir last year to build a “border flow” tool-kit within the newly established Border Operations Centre, to ease supply chain disruptions post-Brexit. Under the £20m agreement, which runs until at least August 2021, Palantir was given permission to combine Home Office, Defra, HMRC, Dept of Transport, Driver & Vehicle Standards Agency, Highways England, and Port Health Authority data under one umbrella: the Cabinet Office. This makes it one of the most comprehensive datasets in history ever compiled across Government.


Critics and Analytics

Such reach brings justifiable concerns. Not least because, in terms of the application of Palantir software, the company has received its fair share of criticism worldwide. Its law-enforcement software work with US police, for instance, drew the attention of human rights groups, especially following its secret deployment of ‘predictive policing’ software in LA and New Orleans. Such predictive policing has proved controversial, with critics highlighting its inherent systemic bias. The claims are that the algorithms can disproportionately target poorer neighborhoods and create “racist feedback loops” of surveillance and prosecution in already hyper-policed communities. 

Palantir also took over the US military AI program ‘Project Maven’, after Google pulled out following backlash due to the ethical concerns. Project Maven is a Pentagon initiative to build an AI-surveillance platform for drone warfare.

The company was also instrumental in building the tools used by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) border authorities to track and deport migrant families via its Investigative Case Management (ICM) system. The system gave operators access to a target’s schooling, family relationships, employment information, phone records, immigration history, foreign exchange program status, personal connections, biometric traits, criminal records, and home and work addresses”. Employees and activist groups claim such software has the potential to enable violations of civil liberties.

Palantir is not alone in controversy. Whilst on a different level, Faculty has also been associated with a number of potentially concerning operations within the UK. When it operated as ASI Data Science, the group was hired in 2016 to provide modelling for the Vote Leave team, before moving onto the 2019 Conservative election campaign. 

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

Campaign spending documents for ASI state they were employed for ‘market research’ and ‘advertising’. However, invoices for the transactions were found to have been for ‘data polling and analysis’. The work was carried out by Ben Warner, brother of Faculty CEO Mark – a man who was subsequently brought into No.10 by Dominic Cummings as an independent advisor to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE). 

Whistleblower Christopher Wylie gave testimony before MPs involving Faculty. He claimed that ASI was a “subcontractor” to Cambridge Analytica (CA) – claims which Faculty has contested. The company did, however, work on a recruitment scheme under CA affiliate SCL Elections, with ASI fellows working on “at least 10 projects for SCL”.

During the pandemic, Faculty was contracted to model and forecast data using ‘social media, utility providers and telecom bills, credit rating agencies etc.’ for the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG). This was described by The Guardian as a contract to ‘analyse UK citizens’ tweets’.

In a recent Science and Technology Select Committee hearing, Labour MP Dawn Butler referenced both Faculty and Palantir with regards to data usage by the Government. She said: “I think you’re over exaggerating how enthusiastic people are about just giving carte blanche access to their data. Are you aware Palantir and Faculty have links to the discredited Cambridge Analytica?”. 

It was a question that the then Health Secretary Matt Hancock seemed unable or unwilling to answer, but is a concern that seems only set to grow as long as data companies keep winning hundreds of millions of pounds worth of Government contracts.

Both Faculty and Palantir were approached for comment.

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