There are many reasons why Palantir’s increased involvement in the UK’s health care system is troubling, including, first and foremost, the company’s close ties with the US military and intelligence industrial complexes.
The U.S. spyware giant Palantir, with intimate ties to defense, intelligence and security industries around the world and a long, proven track record of never once turning a profit, has won another juicy contract with the UK’s crisis-ridden National Health System (NHS), this time to help reduce the backlog of 6 million patients waiting for elective care. Here’s more from the FT:
The US company’s data processing technology will be spread across 30 hospital trusts — bodies that organise healthcare in regions across the country — in March in a bid to help cut NHS waiting lists that have spiralled higher during the coronavirus pandemic.
The rollout comes after a recent pilot of Palantir’s Foundry system at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital Trust helped reduce the inpatient waiting list by 28 per cent — the equivalent of tens of thousands of patients — for all non-emergency surgeries, including for cancer treatments.
The expansion will consolidate Palantir’s position as the preferred operating system for the NHS, following its use in the management of ventilators and PPE equipment during the pandemic, and the delivery of the nationwide Covid-19 vaccination programme through 2021.
While the backlog project is still a proof-of-concept, the NHS is paying £23.5mn for a two-year licence for the technology, expiring in December 2022.
Palantir, which employs more than 600 people in the UK and plans to hire an additional 250 this year, processes sensitive health and national security data for UK public authorities, including NHS England, the Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Defence.
There are many reasons why this is troubling. One is Palantir’s well-documented ties with the U.S. military, the CIA and other intelligence agencies. Through its venture capital arm, In-Q-Tel, Langley provided the lion’s share of the funds needed to get Palantir up and running back in 2003. The agency was also reportedly Palantir’s sole customer during its early years as the company refined its technology.
The day before Palantir’s listing on the New York Stock Exchange, an article in the BBC noted that “the company — sometimes described as the ‘scariest’ of America’s tech giants — got its start working with US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Its main line of business these days is to provide data-mining technology to support US military operations, mass surveillance, and predictive policing. Its technology is also used by ICE to identify illegal migrants before detaining and deporting them as well as by the NSA. In February 2021, Palantir’s chief operating officer famously bragged to investors that Palantir was driving towards being “inside of every missile, inside of every drone.”
The company also supplies software to other public agencies and corporate clients. Like many Silicon Valley giants, Palantir has not posted a single annual profit in its 19-year existence. Following its IPO in Oct 2020 the company’s share price surged, reaching a record high of $35.18 in late January 2021, before gradually fluttering back down toward the original IPO price of around $10.
Since the beginning of the pandemic Palantir, like many tech giants, has sought to capitalize on new opportunities in healthcare. As Lambert reported in September 2020, Palantir was one of a number of companies selected to help collect, store, process and share data for the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in a project that “poses a grave threat to the data privacy of all Americans,” according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
On the other side of the Atlantic, the UK Government signed a deal in March 2020 with an assortment of private tech firms, including Palantir, to help run the NHS’s massive COVID-19 “data store”. It was supposed to be a short-term arrangement but in December of the same year the Department of Health and Social Care awarded Palantir an additional two-year contract, worth up to £23 million, to help run the NHS’ massive database. The contract, awarded on December 11, paved the way for Palantir to play a major, long-term role in the NHS beyond COVID as well as in other government agencies.
“It wasn’t clear what precisely Palantir had been given access to,” wrote Mary Fitzgerald, openDemocracy’s Editor in Chief, and Cori Crider, a US lawyer and a founding Director of Foxglove, a new non-profit that exists to make tech fair: “the list of NHS datasets that the firm will draw on have been redacted from the contract. What is clear, though, is that the government deliberately struck this deal on the quiet – knowing it would be controversial.”
As Fitzgerald and Cirder note, Palantir won three consecutive massive no-bid contracts to manage the largest pool of patient data in NHS history – with the price leaping in six months from £1, to £1m, to £23m. And all of it made possible by the British government’s suspension of tedious-but-vital procurement law (which determines who is allowed to bid for government deals) during the early months of the pandemic.
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