Health is Wealth: NHS faces legal challenge over Palantir data deal

March 11, 2021

2 min read

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What's going on here?

The NHS is being taken to court by openDemocracy over a £23.5m contract with Palantir, the controversial Silicon Valley data-gathering and analytics company. 

What does this mean?

The CIA-backed company is best known for its links with US intelligence. Palantir powers US military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and has a $41m contract with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to track records of legal and illegal immigrants, despite protests by some employees. 

In the wake of the COVID crisis, Palantir secured a short-term deal to handle NHS data for the nominal sum of £1. However, in December 2020, a new two-year government contract was quietly agreed, allowing Palantir to reach “far beyond COVID: to Brexit, general business planning and much more”, according to openDemocracy. An NHS spokesperson has stated that a Data Protection Impact Assessment was carried out in April 2020 for the initial short-term contract. Nevertheless, Foxglove, the non-profit legal team leading this case argue that a fresh assessment should have taken place for the new contract and that in not doing so, NHS England has failed to consider the impact of this deal on the public. 

This lawsuit coincided with the release of internal government documents to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealing that the government and NHS officials had been wooed by Palantir over expensive dinners and £60 watermelon cocktails prior to the contracts. Peter Smith, former president of the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply stated that “it doesn’t look great, but all the big suppliers to the government do it”.

What's the big picture effect?

The recent public outcry following the High Court ruling that Matt Hancock acted unlawfully by failing to publish the details of COVID-related procurement contracts signals that government officials are already failing to maintain public trust. Cori Crider, co-founder of Foxglove highlights that “the government shouldn’t use the pandemic as an excuse to embed major tech firms like Palantir in the NHS without consulting the public”. At a time when the government is battling “vaccine hesitancy”, sneaking in a deal with a controversial company and providing them with access to health data does not bode well for public trust.

The highly sensitive and personal nature of health data makes the idea of a shadowy technology company’s involvement even more unnerving. With the Cambridge Analytica scandal bringing to light how intricately data and metadata (data about data) could be used for microtargeting, the scepticism around providing access to such vast amounts of data is understandable. Concerns that the government are using the pandemic to accelerate the privatisation of the NHS in the absence of proper scrutiny places this potential future of UK healthcare in direct opposition to the spirit of the NHS. 

It is necessary that the NHS have the best data systems possible to aid doctors and nurses in their important and life-saving work. However, it is clear that these systems also need to be democratically acceptable, transparent and trustworthy. After all, public trust is a key component to the success of public health. 

Report written by Yaeno Fernandez

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