For a company tipped to provide the NHS’s new overarching data platform, it is appropriate that Palantir Technologies is named after an all-seeing orb.
Palantir, which draws its name from the powerful crystal balls deployed in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, is the favourite to win a £360m contract for the NHS’s Federated Data Platform (FDP). Covering everything from individual patients’ data to vaccination programmes, waiting lists and medical trials, the FDP will aggregate data from multiple sources and different formats on to a single platform.
According to a document sent to potential bidders for the five-year contract, it will “provide access to real-time data to enable decision-making to better coordinate care”. Speaking at London Tech Week last week, the health secretary, Sajid Javid, said: “This is the perfect moment to bring data together and reap the benefits.”
The ambitious scope of the platform has alarmed campaign groups, who fear for patient confidentiality, privacy and data security, but the identity of the frontrunner has also caused concern.
US-based Palantir was co-founded by Peter Thiel, one of Silicon Valley’s few high-profile Donald Trump supporters. The $15.6bn (£12.7bn) company has been criticised for its work with the US immigration agency, as well as its intelligence service and defence contracts. It already works closely with NHS England by providing software that processes data for a variety of purposes including take-up of Covid-19 vaccines and managing the post-pandemic bounce back in elective care (surgery or treatment booked in advance).
But the prospect of it setting up an overarching data platform for NHS England has alarmed Foxglove, a UK legal campaign group that focuses on accountability in the technology industry. Foxglove’s concerns, and those of similar organisations, centre on two aspects: the safety of patient data, and the nature of the company that will set up the data framework and seek to exploit it.
“A firm like that has no place being the ‘operating system for the NHS’ – period,” says Cori Crider, a director at Foxglove, who adds that the company “makes no secret of its desire to keep profiting from war and surveillance”.
Crider adds that there is not enough public information about the FDP, although documents have been circulated among would-be bidders. According to the documents, the main five-year contract for FDP is worth £360m and the platform will deliver £3.6bn in benefits over 10 years.
“We’ve got deeper concerns about this Federated Data Platform,” says Crider. “How much confidential patient data is going to be swept in, who is going to have access, and on what terms? It’s clearly not being built just for your GP – it will serve a host of other government officials. We’ve sent a legal letter seeking answers, and received almost no detail in return.”
Phil Booth, founder of medConfidential, which campaigns for confidentiality in healthcare, says Palantir is the favourite for the contract because it already carries out some of the work envisioned in the FDP.
“Palantir is already doing many of the things which are going to be done by the platform. To move away from something that is already deeply embedded into NHS England’s systems would be a significant shift.”
He adds that it is “crazy” to amalgamate such a wide variety of NHS functions into a single monolithic system. “NHS England proposes swapping out all of the complex data flows across a whole host of life-critical systems just by buying one company’s product off the shelf. This single platform, the idea of one thing to rule them all, is odd. You cannot just slap in all the data and expect the entire ecosystem’s architectures to align and integrate.”
Palantir was co-founded in 2003 by Thiel, 54, a co-founder of PayPal and early investor in Facebook. Some initial funding came from In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the Central Intelligence Agency – the US foreign intelligence service – reflecting the company’s origins as a tool to combat terrorism. Palantir’s software programs process huge amounts of data, enabling clients to identify previously undetectable patterns and connections or, as the company puts it, convert “massive amounts of information into knowledge that reflects their world”.
It is deeply embedded in the US public sector. Other US government clients include the tax-collecting Internal Revenue Service, the US financial watchdog and the Department for Health and Human Services. It also has a contract with the US army to modernise its battlefield intelligence system and is reportedly working with the Pentagon on Project Maven, its artificial intelligence programme.
It helps several western governments combat terrorism and governments account for more than half of its revenue, with clients including the UK Ministry of Defence. Despite surging revenues – up 41% to $1.5bn last year – it has posted annual net losses of $520m, $1.2bn and $580m since 2019.
Its most controversial contracts in recent years have been with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE). It works with an ICE subdivision called Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). HSI tackles drug smuggling, money laundering and human trafficking, among other forms of criminal activity that might break US immigration and customs laws.
Palantir says it has never had a contract with the ICE unit responsible for deportations, Enforcement and Removal Operations or ERO. But a US immigrant rights group, Mijente, says its technology played a role in raids on food-processing plants in Mississippi in 2019 in which 680 undocumented immigrants – described as “removable aliens” in the official press release – were arrested.
Thiel, 54, is a libertarian billionaire who has used his fortune to support rightwing candidates in the US, including Trump’s successful bid for the presidency in 2016. His other Republican endorsements include Hillbilly Elegy author JD Vance, who is running for the Senate in Ohio, and Blake Masters, a senatorial midterm candidate for Arizona who warns of “widespread wokeness” on his website. Speaking at a bitcoin conference in April, Thiel described ESG – which stands for environmental, social and corporate governance and is a cornerstone of responsible investing principles – as a “virtue signalling, hate factory term” while describing cryptocurrency’s supporters as a “revolutionary youth movement”.
Palantir’s co-founder and chief executive, Alex Karp, 54 is a Joe Biden supporter who told the New York Times in 2020 that his leftwing upbringing and dual heritage – of a Jewish father and African American mother – would make him a natural target in the wake of a far-right powergrab. “Who’s the first person who is going to get hung? You make a list, and I will show you who they get first. It’s me. There’s not a box I don’t check.”
However, Palantir’s listing on the New York Stock Exchange in 2020 was accompanied by a letter from Karp that slammed the Silicon Valley community. Around the same time Palantir announced it was moving its headquarters from California to Denver, Colorado.
“Our company was founded in Silicon Valley. But we seem to share fewer and fewer of the technology sector’s values and commitments,” Karp wrote. “Our software is used to target terrorists and to keep soldiers safe … We have chosen sides, and we know that our partners value our commitment.”
The head of Palantir’s London office is Louis Mosley, grandson of Oswald Mosley and nephew of the late former president of Formula One’s governing body, Max Mosley, who became a privacy campaigner later in life. Speaking to the Sunday Times in 2020, Louis Mosley said Palantir’s origins were as a defender of personal privacy. “Palantir was actually started to guard against government overreach into personal privacy. Much of the software we’ve built is to prove those kinds of protections.”
Palantir describes itself as a software company that does not mine or sell customer data. Indeed, the bidder documents for the FDP state it is a platform that will be “owned and controlled by the NHS”.
An NHS spokesperson said: “Safe and secure use of patient data allows the NHS to build services that are more responsive to patients, and this software we are seeking to use for the FDP will put the NHS in control of its data and ensure that sensitive patient information is kept in a secure environment that meets the highest national standards.” The spokesperson added that the NHS would run a “fair and open” procurement process for the platform.
But MedConfidential’s Booth says Palantir’s work outside the UK should give the NHS pause when it considers awarding the contract, due to start in November. “Is this really a company we want to have at the heart of our NHS? You cannot divorce a piece of software from the company that makes it.”