‘Very troubling choice’ – NHS picks Palantir for £480m data deal

US big data specialist – as widely expected – has been chosen as the health service’s key partner in the delivery of a new nationwide tech platform for sharing data between trusts

US big data firm Palantir has been chosen as the key technology partner for the delivery of major new NHS data platform – a decision that doctors and human rights campaigners have called a “very troubling choice”.

The Federated Data Platform (FDP) will serve as a central national infrastructure for connecting NHS information, as well as allowing individual trusts and integrated care systems to create their own data platform and connect it to those established by other local NHS entities.

The system will supersede and build upon the Covid Data Store that was created in the early weeks of the coronavirus crisis to serve as the health service’s core repository for data sets containing information such as infection rates, availability of beds and medicines, waiting lists, future projections and, latterly, vaccine rollouts.

That system was based on Palantir’s Foundry technology and – although it was created for a nominal fee of £1 – the company has since been awarded a series of contracts to support the platform. These engagements have been worth more than £60m cumulatively.

This value is dwarfed by the £360m price tag attached to the five-year deal to create and maintain the FDP. If the contract is extended by two further years to its full potential length, spending is projected to rise as high as £480m.

“Palantir is a very troubling choice of service provider for the NHS given the human rights controversies surrounding the company… The public has a right to know what sort of company is being invited in to provide these vital services, and what precisely they intend to do with the data they’re accessing.”

Peter Frankental, Amnesty International

Supporting Palantir in delivering the platform in the coming months will be a consortium of partners including Accenture, PwC, NECS and Carnall Farrar. The first six months of the engagement will be dedicated to transitioning outgoing systems to the FDP.

The NHS indicated that it will have ultimate control of all data housed in the FDP and that “no company involved in the Federated Data Platform can access health and care data without [our] explicit permission”.

“[Data] will only be used for direct care and planning” it added. “It will not be used to access data for research purposes and GP data will not feed into the national version of the software platform.”

National director for transformation Dr Vin Diwakar said that the platform will help “tackle waiting times, join up patient care and make the health service sustainable for the future”.

Palantir chief executive Alex Karp added: “This award is the culmination of 20 years of developing software that enables complex, sensitive data to be integrated in a way that protects security, respects privacy and puts the customer in full control.”

‘Deeply worrying’
Given the key role of its technology in supporting the Covid Data Store Palantir had been widely expected to win the bidding process to create the FDP. Its victory, however, is no less controversial for its predictability.

The firm was co-founded in 2003 by controversial billionaire Peter Thiel, who still chairs the company’s board and, appearing at an event held by Oxford Union this year, called for the NHS to be privatised and claimed the UK’s support for the institution amounts to “Stockholm syndrome”. Other representatives of the data company have distanced the company from the comments and stressed that they were made purely as a “private individual”.

One of Palantir’s early investors was the venture capital arm of the CIA. A 2020 report from Amnesty International found that the tech firm’s work supporting the US immigration and security agencies has created “a high risk that Palantir is contributing to serious human rights violations”.

Following the award of the FDP contract, the charity’s UK business and human rights director Peter Frankental said: “Palantir is a very troubling choice of service provider for the NHS given the human rights controversies surrounding the company. This is not the first hefty contract we’ve seen awarded to Palantir by the government, which also granted Palantir unprecedented access to the public’s health data records over the course of the pandemic through large NHS tech contracts. There needs to be proper transparency over how these contracts are awarded, particularly in this case given the huge implications for data protection. The public has a right to know what sort of company is being invited in to provide these vital services, and what precisely they intend to do with the data they’re accessing.”

The British Medical Association also expressed serious concerns about the NHS’s choice as the core partner for the national data system.

The union’s representative body chair Dr Latifa Patel said: “The decision to award Palantir, a large US-based multinational, the contract for the Federated Data Platform – software which is designed to bring together existing NHS patient data systems – is deeply worrying. Having made our concerns plain for several months on this, and having written to the secretary of state of health and social care and urged for a rethink, our fears about how patient information may be used and handled going forward have not diminished.”

She added: “This contract is valued at an eye-watering amount – money which is desperately needed for direct care to help patients right now, and other health and social care services which remain in such crisis, not to mention the ongoing workforce shortages. Going forward, we cannot and must not allow patient data to be exploited. We need to know just how confidential patient data will be used within this data platform and the extent of the role that Palantir, which has commercial interest in this decision, will play. We hope to continue to work with NHS England to ensure our members’ and patients’ concerns are addressed.”

As well its work with the NHS, in recent years Palantir has won a range of deals with the Ministry of Defence, adding up to a cumulative value of about £100m. The firm has also previously secured a potential £20m contract with the Cabinet Office to monitor the flow of people and goods at the UK border and, at the start of this month, entered into a £1.5m engagement to provide a “trade analytics solution” to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Sam Trendall

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