Tory government refuses to give details of its renewed NHS contract with this ‘Big Brother’ firm

Palantir logo on building
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The Johnson-led government is refusing to publish further details of an NHS contract with a US firm. This firm has been embroiled in controversies relating to intelligence gathering for several years.

More transparency needed

Palantir was co-founded by billionaire Peter Thiel. Thiel is a board member and major investor of Facebook and was a member of Donald Trump’s transition team.

In the UK, Palantir has been awarded a £23m extension of its NHS datastore contract, but this was scrutinised by openDemocracy. This resulted in the government reportedly agreeing “not to extend Palantir’s contract beyond COVID without consulting the public”. openDemocracy also said that the government agreed “to engage the public, via patient juries, about whether firms like Palantir are appropriate for a long-term role in the NHS at all”.

However, openDemocracy also argued that:

We still need full transparency on the Palantir deal: the government continues to refuse to lift key redactions on what data is being fed into Palantir’s datastore. We need to know that the public consultation they’ve promised is far-reaching, not just a box-ticking exercise.

NHS datasets

In May 2020, The Canary reported on the datastore project that would access a range of data sources. These include but aren’t limited to:

  • 111 and 999 logged data.
  • Supply chain coordination.
  • Shielded patient list.
  • Public Health England negative test results.
  • Patients listed as frail.
  • NHS electronic staff records.
  • Coronavirus (Covid-19) related death information.
  • Coronavirus hospitalisation in England.
  • Surveillance systems.
  • Care home beds.

UK government blog Healthtech stated that Palantir would provide “the software, Palantir Foundry, that powers the front end data platform”.

Read on...

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According to Big Brother Watch, the NHS dataset includes:

  • personal contact details (including name, personal email address, home address, home telephone numbers, emergency contact details),
  • personal details (including gender, nationality and place of birth)
  • work contact details (including work email address, work department, work telephone number, user IDs, work location details)
  • employment details (including job title, job duties, manager/sponsor, working hours, employee number)
  • any other personal data that might be useful for the nature and purposes of the Agreement

It also includes “racial or ethnic data”, “political affiliations, religious or similar beliefs”, “criminal offences, proceedings and sentences” and data on “physical or mental health conditions”.

Palantir’s other UK dealings

The ubiquitous Palantir has its fingers in many pies. Indeed, it has multiple divisions, which it calls ‘solutions’, including Defense, Cyber and Intelligence. According to a US Senate hearing on the links between Facebook and Palantir, the latter’s intelligence ‘solution’ offers to integrate:

disparate data from disconnected data silos at massive scale for low-friction interaction with intelligence officers. Search through every shred of enterprise data at high speed, pull out significant intelligence, and perform intuitive, multi-dimensional analysis to reveal unseen patterns, connections, and trends. Enterprise data sources, unstructured cable traffic, structured identity data, email, telephone records, spreadsheets, network traffic and more can all be searched and analyzed without the need for a specialized query language.

In September 2020, the Johnson government awarded Palantir a contract to oversee post-Brexit border and customs data.

Palantir also worked for UK intelligence. The company was awarded contracts to handle vast datasets on UK citizens for British spy agency GCHQ. Further, Palantir’s expertise was used as part of a GCHQ project which sought to improve the agency’s ability to collect “tweets, blog posts, and news articles”.

And a joint National Security Agency (NSA)-GCHQ surveillance programme recommended Palantir software. A a presentation for the Mastering the Internet programme in 2010 recommended use of Palantir software on Android handsets (smartphones and tablets).

US intelligence gathering

In August 2020, Trump deployed paramilitary units to the US city of Portland in response to Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. The Canary reported at the time how intelligence for one of the units is handled by Palantir. Units spying on the protesters included US Marshals, Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC), and Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Moreover, in August 2019, ICE was awarded a contract worth $49.9m with Palantir specifically to “target and identify the families of unaccompanied children crossing the [US-Mexico] border in 2017”.

ICE agents also used Palantir software as part of their domestic and transnational criminal investigations. And it’s claimed that ICE uses Palantir’s FALCON mobile app to help field agents “search through a fusion of law enforcement databases that include information on people’s immigration histories, family relationships, and past border crossings”. Between October 2017 and 2018, “ICE workplace raids nationwide led to 1,525″ arrests.

Furthermore, the Verge reported on how since 2012 Palantir – “a data-mining firm founded with seed money from the CIA’s venture capital firm” – had been working with the New Orleans police department on predictive policing. Using “an intelligence technique called social network analysis (or SNA),” Palantir’s tech purports to predict which people are likely drivers or victims of violence”.

Palantir also deals with foreign governments, including Israeli security. The Verge adds, for example, that:

In 2016, the Danish national police and intelligence services signed an 84-month contract with Palantir — reported in the Danish press to have been worth between $14.8 and $41.4 million — for a predictive technology package meant to identify potential terrorists.

And according to Wired, Palantir undertook deals with numerous US police departments. It also provided technology to California’s “fusion centers”, including the Joint Regional Intelligence Center – whose “databases would ultimately stretch far beyond terrorism, including everything from parking tickets to maps of schools”.

Other US contracts

Moreover, Palantir’s business extends well beyond law enforcement. Indeed, as well as the CIA, FBI and NSA, Palantir’s clients have included the Center for Disease Control, the US Marine Corps, the US Air Force, the US Special Operations Command, and the US Military Academy.

Palantir also helped develop an aid for the spyware XKEYSCORE programme, which:

allowed analysts to essentially import data from the NSA’s pipeline, investigate and visualize it through Palantir, and then presumably pass it to fellow analysts or Five Eyes intelligence partners

Palantir further won an $800m contract with the US army in 2019. And the company provided intelligence support for US special operations, including storage and analysis of a range of information such as cultural trends and roadside bomb data.

Murkier

But Palantir’s shady dealings don’t stop there. Investigations by US journalist Barrett Brown revealed that Palantir, HBGary Federal and Berico were part of a dirty tricks campaign called Team Themis. The campaign aimed to discredit WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Salon, and later Intercept editor Glenn Greenwald.

Here’s one of the Team Themis slides:

Team Themis slide

After the activities of Team Themis were exposed, Palantir sought to distance itself from the other members and issued an apology.

Concerns

It’s concerning that Palantir, given its history, is now organising data from shielded patient lists, NHS electronic staff records, and other sources.

That it was awarded the contract in the first place is a reflection of the Johnson government’s agenda. It’s one that appears increasingly to be about control of the population. And that’s something which is of even greater concern.

Featured image via Flickr/ Cory Doctorow

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