January 26, 2024
Shadowy, CIA-affiliated Palantir should not be trusted with NHS patients' data
April 24, 2021, London, United Kingdom. A double-decker bus during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over recent years, big data has grown at an alarming pace, infiltrating almost every industry in the modern market.
The questions surrounding its morality seem all the more prevalent now – when privatised companies striving for profit begin to penetrate the public sector.
Palantir Technologies, a US big data conglomerate headed by prolific libertarian Peter Thiel, made a £330 million deal with the British National Healthcare Service (NHS) on November 21.
Quickly becoming a crucial entity in the lives of all Britons by coming into possession of sensitive health data you have to ask how much we know about the company’s past.
After they were rejected by many US venture capital firms, Palantir turned to the CIA’s (Central Intelligence Agency) venture arm – In-Q-Tel, who invested $2 million in the company.
From this partnership many controversial operations were born, though we are only aware of a few, we know that Palantir has participated in family separations and was a key player in enforcing Donald Trump’s harsh anti-immigration policies, unethical mass surveillance programs by UK and US spy agencies (as exposed by whistle-blower Edward Snowden), racist predictive policing programs in the US, alongside covert operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Palantir, along with many other massive companies, have hugely profited from partnerships with anti-immigration and deportation agencies. Though this raises no legal questions, the obvious issue of human rights abuses (these often occur in private prisons and immigrant detention centres).
“They’re in a scary business,” said Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Lee Tien in quotes to Forbes back in 2013.
At the same time, Jay Stanley, an analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said the company could enable a “true totalitarian nightmare, monitoring the activities of innocent Americans on a mass scale.”
Should a company that profits from, and encourages human rights abuses have a place in the UK’s public healthcare industry, working with vulnerable patients and doctors alike?
As for Palantir’s involvement in mass surveillance programs, along with software XKEYSCORE (a US government spy software), it lets analysts search through databases of emails, online chats and browsing histories without authorisation, thus tracking the online movements of millions.
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Predictive policing is an algorithm-based process to forecast crimes, but has shown itself to be instrumental in reinforcing racial biases, which are extremely prevalent in the US justice system.
Palantir was instrumental to the success of Operation LASER (which aimed to extract potential future offenders from an area before a crime had been committed) that contributed to the “vicious cycle” of systemic racism in LA neighbourhoods by over-policing and vowing to remove possible offenders like “tumours.”
The NHS has given Palantir and other companies a licence to build and operate a Federated Data Platform (FDP), which will allow the NHS and other healthcare providers to communicate and share data better.
The NHS has said that it will not be possible for users to opt out of the FDP due to the data being used for “direct patient care.” Some argue this will streamline the healthcare system and mean efficiency is greatly increased, allowing healthcare providers to access crucial live data “at the touch of a button.”
But, Thiel, the chairman of a company, is an outspoken libertarian who has said that the NHS needs a process where “you just rip the whole thing from the ground and start over” – including the embrace of “market mechanisms.”
Pairing this with his apathy towards Palantir’s participation in serious human rights abuses poses him as a questionable candidate for partnership with the NHS.
Palantir and the NHS have been working together since the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 when Palantir began to help the struggling health service for £1 in payment (the contracts show Palantir charged only £1 for the use of its Foundry data management software to the NHS, allowing medical professionals to better analyse the spread of coronavirus across the country).
This led to a slew of other contracts between the UK, but none as crucial as the one signed in November. Many members of the government have stated that the NHS cannot go on as it is – technological change and advancement are necessary to allow the organisation to continue to provide Britain with healthcare.
But many also aren’t convinced this is the right move – many previous attempts at third-party data management have been cancelled over privacy fears – why would Palantir, a firm known for egregious privacy infringements be any different?
Despite the concerns of the British Medical Association about patient data use, and opposition from other organisations, as well as public petitions gaining almost 50,000 signatures, the deal has gone ahead full steam.
With the contract signed mere weeks ago, NHSE is already investigating Palantir following a possible breach: according to information published in leaked emails, Palantir hired a PR company to damage the reputation of the legal transparency non-profit Good Law Project.
Palantir has also been proved to have hired Global Counsel consulting firm to present Palantir as a respectable partner to the British Government, trying to push away its past of privacy breaches and military contractor work in the US.
Organisations like Open Democracy have sued for action while the British public is vying for the government’s attention to ask for an NHS data platform they can trust, but it seems there is no particular path to stop this deal, besides informing ourselves and signing petitions.
I urge you all to be aware of the dangers this deal poses, and the impact companies like Palantir can have on all of us and our data.