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Firm Chaired By ‘Pro-Privatisation’ Right-Wing US Billionaire in Line to Oversee NHS Health Data

Max Colbert and Josiah Mortimer explore the chequered history of the current favourites for the NHS’ new Data Platform.

Palantir and Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel, center, and Apple CEO Tim Cook, right, listen as Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with technology industry leaders at Trump Tower in 2016. Photo: AP Photo/Evan Vucci/Alamy Stock Photo

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A US data giant chaired by a right-wing US billionaire is tipped to clinch a £480 million contract with the NHS, according to a report by Bloomberg.

A potential seven-year deal for US data giant Palantir to create a ‘federated data platform’ (FDP) in the health service has triggered immediate concerns among data privacy advocates and NHS campaigners.

Palantir’s current chairman Peter Thiel, recently likened the UK’s allegiance to the NHS to “Stockholm syndrome” and backed a complete overhaul of the institution. In a clip still available online, Thiel said of the health service: “Rip the whole thing from the ground and start over”. 

Speaking at a Q&A event at the Oxford Union, the firm’s libertarian co-founder Thiel spoke of the need to fix the health service with “market mechanisms”. 

The first step to fixing the Health Service, Thiel said, was to break the public away from the idea that it is “the most wonderful thing in the world”. “Highways create traffic jams, welfare creates poverty, schools make people dumb and the NHS makes people sick,” he added.

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The resulting furore led the company to distance itself from its own founder’s views. Tom McArdle, health care deployment strategist at Wired, told Wired magazine recently that Palantir’s CEO Alex Carp disagreed with Thiel’s market-friendly NHS comments, saying he wishes “we had a health care system in the US that served the poor and underserved as well as I perceive the British system does.’”

It has done little to assuage the growing concerns surrounding the tech giant’s latest foray into the NHS.

Silicon Valley’s ‘black sheep’ Peter Thiel was also one of Trump’s biggest donors in 2016, joining the campaign transition team and delivering a keynote address to the Republican national convention that July. 

While he has since reportedly soured on backing Trump, Thiel is no less involved as kingmaker to Republican candidates, having backed a number of influential far-right politicians since selling his Facebook shares and stepping back from the company. 

Big Data Plan

NHS data is viewed as the most valuable health data set in the world, since nowhere else has a whole population dataset of more than 50 million people spanning 75 years – not even China. Most other health systems are insurance-based and not comprehensive.

Population-wide health data is a field many of the big US based digital health and big pharma firms are basing their products on, and selling them back to the UK. Successive Conservative Governments have recognised the value of this data to private companies. David Cameron planned to sell this data as early as 2012 but the plans were halted amid opposition. 

The proposed new NHS data platform, intended to weave together patient records between hospitals, aims to enhance healthcare delivery, reduce waiting times, and speed up diagnoses. 

While the final outcome of the procurement process – which Palantir described as a “must-win” for them – is currently delayed until mid-October, some fear it may be a foregone conclusion. 

As reported by Byline Times last June, even the language of the data platform itself seems to favour Palantir, with several use cases established within the existing NHS system now being moved to the FDP. The company has also engaged in extensive lobbying activity in the runup to the award, wooing executives and poaching former senior NHS England chiefs in anticipation. 

NHS England has denied that the competition is tilted in Palantir’s favour. 

But concerns run deeper with Palantir, a company that has historic ties to the US military and intelligence agencies, and a long history of involvement in highly controversial activity, leading critics to question the transparency and ethical dimensions of allowing them to team up with the publicly owned NHS. 

Initially, Palantir oversaw parts of the UK’s vaccine distribution for a nominal £1 fee and processed potentially sensitive patient data amid efforts to combat Covid-19. Despite the pandemic-era work being sold to the public as a “short-term” emergency award, winning the FDP would cement Palantir’s ‘Foundry’ software as the ‘operating system for the NHS’. 

Groups including Doctors’ Association UK and Just Treatment are demanding transparency concerning Palantir’s Foundry software and its implications for patient data security, as questions are raised about whether the firm and its founders are fit stewards for the nation’s medical data.

Green MP Caroline Lucas, who campaigns against NHS privatisation, told Byline Times: “Palantir is full of assurances about how the contract isn’t about them mining or selling NHS data. But I’m left wondering about their long-term objectives. 

“We know the US private sector has long been circling our health service – and the Chairman of this US company has been overtly critical of the UK public’s love of the NHS and was even a major donor to Trump’s 2016 campaign. I seriously question the wisdom of letting them anywhere near NHS data systems.”

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Intelligence and Immigration

Palantir’s more typical role is working as a military contractor, and the company has won tens of millions in contracts with the Ministry of Defence. The company’s ‘predictive policing’ software has been trialled in this country and is deployed in various cities across the US. 

The first known work Palantir undertook in the UK was to help the intelligence communities of both the US and the UK facilitate their covert mass spying operations, ‘XKEYSCORE’ and ‘Tempora’, by building additional tech to expand their capabilities. 

These programs are reportedly still operational and routinely collect social media traffic, internet searches, user names, passwords, telephone calls, keyword searches and much more from internet users. Palantir’s ‘Gotham’ software, most frequently used by law enforcement, is considered to resemble a commercial version of these large-scale surveillance operations.

Speaking of their slow creep into full NHS ingratiation, Labour MP Clive Lewis said that Palantir: “built its business supporting drone and missile strikes, immigration raids and arrests, not the delivery of care and medicine… I think that will have a negative impact on patient trust, particularly among minoritised communities who may feel a threat from big Government.”

Recently leaked emails reveal that Palantir’s UK head, Louis Mosley, had developed a secret plan to embed itself more deeply into the health service, and outlined a strategy of “Buying our way in!”, which outlined a plan of “hoovering up” smaller businesses serving the NHS to “take a lot of ground and take down a lot of political resistance”. 

As previously reported by Byline Times, Palantir had already previously entered into a partnership with Babylon Health, the now-bankrupt private health-tech firm.

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The Brexit Nexus

Palantir had a relationship with the scandal-hit and now-defunct firm Cambridge Analytica (CA), both in the UK and in the US, where they helped run so-called ‘microtargeting’ social media campaigns in swing states for the Trump campaign, alongside CA. . 

But in the UK, the depth of Palantir’s involvement in the Brexit referendum is still a subject of contention, despite there now being public acknowledgement of connections between the now defunct Cambridge Analytica and the company. Palantir received early funding from In-Q-Tel, the venture arm of US intelligence agency the CIA.. 

The links between Palantir and Cambridge Analytica can be traced back to 2013, when former SCL Group (CA’s parent company) intern Sophie Schmidt, daughter of Google CEO Eric Schmidt, was referred to in an internal email referencing Palantir. 

The email read: “Ever come across Palantir. Amusingly [former Google CEO] Eric Schmidt’s daughter was an intern with us and is trying to push us towards them?”

It later transpired that Palantir had indeed worked with CA, when whistleblower Christopher Wylie told a parliamentary inquiry that “there were senior Palantir employees that were also working on the Facebook data”.

Palantir originally denied these claims, stating it “never had a relationship with Cambridge Analytica, nor have we ever worked on any Cambridge Analytica data”. This was later revised when further revelations emerged.

And it later emerged that a Palantir employee, Alfredas Chmieliauskas, had corresponded with Wylie, at the time employed by SCL. According to the New York Times, they began to share documents and brainstorm ideas for a way to create sophisticated behavioural profiles of people, an operation code-named “Big Daddy”. 

In 2014, Chmieliauskas wrote that he “had a left-field idea… what about replicating the work of the Cambridge Prof as a mobile app that connects to Facebook?”.

While the company had originally denied any involvement, Palantir then put out a statement claiming “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.”

However, these claims were thrown into doubt given Wylie’s testimony that multiple “senior Palantir employees” were involved. It was also contested outright by Chmieliauskas, who said Palantir “threw me under the bus”, and refuted the idea that he acted alone. “I’d worked on far shadier deals before Cambridge Analytica”, he said. 


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Continued Fears

Dr Nick Mann, GP and member of Keep Our NHS Public, told Byline Times: “The success of the NHS dataset is predicated on the trust that patients have in the NHS that their data will be kept confidential.” He pointed to the “lack of trust by patients that their data would not be sold or accessible to insurance companies and other companies interested in people’s personal and health data.”

“Although it would be possible to develop systems to allow explicit patient consent/opt-out for different secondary uses, the options for patients hitherto have essentially been ‘all or nothing’. Previous reassurances about de-identification of patients’ identities proved unreliable and evasive, with no answers to the acknowledged problem of reverse engineering of pseudonymous data” – where enough ‘anonymous’ data points could be drawn together to work out who a patient’s records relate to. 

Another Keep Our NHS Public member, Jan Savage, added: “It will come as no surprise if the work is awarded to Palantir. This would be bad news for the NHS. Palantir has a very poor reputation, not least for poor data governance, and lack of patients’ trust may lead to a significant number opting out of allowing their data to be shared. This would have serious consequences for the quality of scientific research and patient care. 

“Instead of continuing to work with Palantir, NHS England should be investing in developing its own in-house solutions to using NHS data to improve NHS care.”

Palantir’s Tom McArdle says the firm is proud of its record working with the NHS. “Our software powered the vaccine rollout and ensured ventilators were sent where they were needed most,” he says, adding that 36 branches of the NHS are already using Palantir’s software,” he said. 

Palantir has declined to comment on the procurement process.  

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