Coronavirus data contractors engaged in dirty tricks and disinformation campaigns

Locked screen on a smart phone
Tom Coburg

A number of coronavirus (Covid-19) datasets are currently being re-organised by the NHS into a single ‘datastore’. These datasets include sensitive health details of potentially everyone in the UK. To assist in this, Healthtech, a UK government blog, explains that the government has: “enlisted the help of some of the most cutting edge and experienced firms from across Britain’s technology sector”.

However, two of the contractors working on these datasets also worked on disinformation campaigns and one of those contractors made threats against journalists.

Access to personal health information

The Healthtech blog provides a summary of the Covid-19 datastore project, which will encompass a wide range of data sources. These sources will include: 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, Covid-19 related death information, Covid-19 hospitalisation in England surveillance system, care home beds, etc.

Contractors include some well-known names, such as Microsoft, Amazon, and Google.

The blog emphasised:

All NHS data in the [data]store will remain under NHS England and NHS Improvement’s control. Once the public health emergency situation has ended, data will either be destroyed or returned in line with the law and the strict contractual agreements that are in place between the NHS and partners.

That might be so.

However, two other companies listed – namely, Palantir and Faculty – raise questions about the ethics of their inclusion on the datasets project.

Faculty and its support for Johnson

The blog describes Faculty as:

a London-based AI technology specialist that has an existing partnership with NHSX and is now supporting the development and execution of the data response strategy. This includes developing dashboards, models and simulations to provide key central government decision-makers with a deeper level of information about the current and future coronavirus situation to help inform the response.

Indeed, Faculty has previously been awarded a number of contracts by the UK government.

What the blog fails to mention is that Faculty was previously known as Advanced Skills Initiative (ASI). Moreover, that it was listed as a supplier for Vote Leave, the Brexit campaign fronted by prime minister Boris Johnson. A search of the Electoral Commission database reveals that five invoices for five sets of work, including ‘advertising’, were provided by ASI to Vote Leave.

Vote Leave ads were looked at by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee as part of its inquiry into fake news. Ads that were blatant lies and aimed to instil fear, such as this one:

Vote Leave ad

Role of the Warner brothers

Faculty is run:

by Marc Warner, whose brother Ben Warner, a data scientist, was reportedly recruited to Downing Street last year by [Downing Street special advisor Dominic] Cummings after running the data modelling for the Conservative party’s general election campaign.

Moreover and significantly:

Ben Warner is a former senior employee at Faculty and is also said to have worked on Vote Leave.

Neither Ben Warner nor Downing Street special adviser and Vote Leave mastermind Cummings are medical scientists. Yet both attended meetings by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), which was set up to provide the government with advice on the coronavirus crisis.

More recently, Marc Warner admitted via an article in the Sunday Times that he, too, attended Sage meetings:

In short, Marc and Ben Warner attended SAGE meetings, were directly involved in the campaign that helped Johnson come to power, and Ben is now working for Downing Street.

Palantir and intelligence links

The blog describes Palantir as:

providing the software, Palantir Foundry, that powers the front end data platform. … Palantir is a data processor, not a data controller, and cannot pass on or use the data for any wider purpose without the permission of NHS England.

But, again, nothing is provided about Palantir’s past.

Palantir was co-founded in 2004 by Paypal owner and billionaire Peter Thiel. What the blog doesn’t reveal is that Palantir’s client list has included amomgst others, the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, the Centre for Disease Control, the Marine Corps, the Air Force, Special Operations Command, West Point and the IRS.

Furthermore, in 2016, it was revealed Palantir had a $34.6m contract with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and helped the Customs and Border Protection Agency create the Analytical Framework for Intelligence (AFI) system to track immigrants.

Nor does the blog mention that Palantir worked for UK intelligence and was awarded contracts to handle vast data sets on UK citizens for British spy agency GCHQ.

Or that the company helped develop an aid for the spyware XKEYSCORE programme and 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

This was on behalf of the US National Security Agency (NSA) and its ‘Five Eyes‘ partners (in the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), and was subsequently exposed by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

Or that Palantir was used as part of a GCHQ project which sought to improve the agency’s ability to collect “tweets, blog posts, and news articles”.

Palantir and targeted threats

But it gets even murkier.

Investigations by US journalist Barrett Brown revealed that Palantir, HBGary Federal, and Berico were part of a dirty tricks campaign called Team Themis (TT) that aimed to discredit WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Salon, and later Intercept editor, Glenn Greenwald.

Team Themis slide

Canary journalist Mohamed Elmaazi also reported how Palantir, HBGary Federal, and Berico allegedly “were solicited by the US Chamber of Commerce to target its critics”.

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

Ghost of Cambridge Analytica?

And there’s more.

Whistleblower Christopher Wylie told Britain’s MPs that Palantir had several meetings with Alexander Nix, former CEO of disgraced data miner Cambridge Analytica (CA). Wylie also claimed that “senior Palantir employees” subsequently worked on data harvested by CA.

But a Palantir spokesperson denied that, saying:

Palantir has never had a relationship with Cambridge Analytica nor have we ever worked on any Cambridge Analytica data.

Faculty also denied there was any data sharing between ASI and SCL (parent company of Cambridge Analytica). Although Faculty admits that ASI provided “training and mentorship for the [SCL] interns”. An example of a CA/SCL intern’s presentation at an ASI event can be seen here.

Fundamental concerns

It’s concerning that Faculty and Palantir, given their respective histories, are now organising data from shielded patient lists, NHS electronic staff records, and other sources.

Moreover, questions need to be raised about how aspects of NHS data management are effectively being privatised to some very big players.

Featured image via Book Catalog/Flickr

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