NHS data platform: Questions raised over Palantir ‘influencer’ campaign

Health service is reportedly investigating whether terms of potential £480m IT deal may have been breached as critics decry ‘smear campaign’, but leader of tech firm denies breaking contractual rules

The NHS is reportedly investigating whether Palantir, the supplier of the health service’s new £300m data system, may have breached the terms of its contract with what campaigners claim is a “covert smear campaign” against its critics.

Non-profit group the Good Law Project has published excerpts of documents containing details of a proposed influencer-led communications campaign launched by Palantir – and fulfilled on the tech company’s behalf by marketing and PR specialists Topham Guerin and Disrupt.

The campaign reportedly saw the comms firms reach out to people with significant numbers of online followers in the fields of tech and healthcare. The intention was that these individuals would then post updates to “rebut” criticism of Palantir’s role as the supplier of the NHS Federated Data Platform (FDP) and “educate around what [the platform] actually means”.

The Good Law Project was singled out in a project brief as the primary source of criticism of the big data firm.

“There is some misinformation being circulated online, largely by the Good Law Project,” it said. “They are a not-for-profit campaign organisation and have been extremely critical of the contract being awarded to Palantir. They’re spreading fear that, as a result of this contract being awarded, private patient data across the UK may be at risk.”

Potential supporters of the campaign were asked, however, to “please keep the brand confidential and not tag Palantir” in any posts.

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The Good Law Project pointed to the terms of the FDP contract, which require that the supplier does not undertake any publicity activities related to the engagement without having first obtained express written consent to do so from the NHS.

Representatives for NHS England told Bloomberg that the health service took potential breaches of contract seriously, and would be probing the matter further.

Louis Mosley, executive vice president for UK and Europe at Palantir, told the news site: “We decided not to pursue the project — as such, the campaign was not discussed with NHS England.”

Despite the focus on the Good Law Project, the legal campaign group has been only one of a number of organisations to raise major concerns and criticisms about the decision to award to Palantir the contract to deliver FDP – which will create a central national infrastructure through which individual trusts will be able to create their own data platform and connect it to other local NHS entities.

Critics of the NHS’s choice of the US-based big data firm have included human-rights charity Amnesty International and doctors’ union the British Medical Association.

Responding to news of the planned influencer comms drive, Good Law Project executive director Jo Maugham said: “Palantir is not – and frankly never has been – a company that can be trusted with this nationally important contract with our NHS. By its own behaviour it is telling us exactly that. Within weeks, it commissioned a covert smear campaign against a prominent critic and appears to have broken the terms of that contract. If this government won’t act to protect the national interest, the next one must.”

Sam Trendall

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