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UK health department ends data deal with ‘spy tech’ company Palantir

Government seeking to move away from third party data platforms after openDemocracy’s legal win

Adam Bychawski
11 September 2021, 10.42am
Palantir has been accused of fuelling racist feedback loops in the US
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Richard Levine/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

The UK’s Department of Health and Social Care has terminated a data deal regarding adult social care with the controversial US ‘spy tech’ company Palantir following criticism from privacy campaigners.

The department published a document last month stating that it was looking for a company to migrate data on adult social care from a system designed and run by Palantir to a new in-house system. 

The document said that the department “is seeking to move away from reliance on third party data analytics platforms and software” by using a system run internally but built by the British defence contractor, BAE Systems.

In March last year, the UK government signed a deal with Palantir and a number of US tech giants, including Amazon and Google, to run a giant COVID-19 datastore that was billed as a temporary solution to help decision-making during the pandemic. 

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However, openDemocracy revealed in December 2020 that the NHS quietly signed a £23m two-year deal to extend its contract with Palantir. 

Privacy campaigners warned at the time that it could involve an “unprecedented” transfer of citizens’ sensitive health information to a private company. 

In February, openDemocracy and the tech justice group, Foxglove, initiated legal proceedings against the government to force it to commit to avoid extending Palantir’s contract beyond the COVID-19 pandemic without a public consultation. In March, the Department of Health said that it had placed the contract on pause and would launch a consultation before resuming it. 

The department has not confirmed whether the adult social care data contract is separate from Palantir's work on the NHS COVID datastore.

According to Palantir, its software is being used to “provide secure, reliable and timely processing of data – while protecting the privacy of data subjects – to enable NHS decision-makers to make informed, effective and responsible public health decisions”.

Palantir was founded in 2003 by tech entrepreneurs, including the billionaire entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who reportedly donated $1.25m to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Palantir sells software that analyses and finds patterns in large quantities of data and has worked with spy agencies, border forces and militaries.

The company has faced accusations that its software fuelled racist feedback loops in the hands of the Los Angeles police, and has come under fire from its own staff over its role in the US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency’s brutal policy of family separations

“We’ve been saying since last June that spy tech firms like Palantir had no place in health or care,” said Cori Crider, director at Foxglove. “We brought two cases with openDemocracy on COVID data deals, and teamed up with 50 major justice groups to demand that we boot Palantir from the NHS.”

She added: “Now the health department is tossing Palantir from a social care dashboard. This is a big win. We’re still digging into this contract, and have questions about how it’ll work but at least it won’t be managed by Palantir. Public health takes public trust and Palantir fails the trust test.” 

London-based IT consultant, Mozaic Services, won the Department of Health’s contract to carry out the migration, according to public records

Palantir and the Department of Health and Social Care have been approached for comment. 

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