openDemocracy sues British government over shady NHS data deal

The independent global media organization openDemocracy has issued a legal challenge against the UK government following its secretive £23 million deal with surveillance technology company Palantir. 

The contract gives the controversial spy tech business ongoing access to NHS patient data; in a deal reached without public consultation or oversight. Describing its decision to sue, openDemocracy expressed severe concerns towards the UK government's long-term plans for NHS data.

"The government claimed the initial Palantir ‘datastore’ deal, signed last March, was a short-term, emergency response to the pandemic. But December's new, two-year contract reaches far beyond COVID: to Brexit, general business planning and much more.”

Sight beyond sight?

Facts uncovered by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism show that Palantir secured the NHS contract following years of backroom dealings. The evidence reveals that the CIA-backed company began attempting to woo the British government well before the pandemic; in the summer of 2019.

Naïve onlookers may suggest that Palantir (aptly named after the scrying stone used for divination in Lord of the Rings) saw into the future and understood its potential value in helping to run the NHS.

Critics will come to a more realistic conclusion; that Palantir and the government colluded to exploit the chaos caused by the pandemic to rush through a deal that creates revenue and surveillance opportunities from medical information said to be worth £10bn-a-year.

Worrying track record

That Palantir paved the road to its NHS contract by schmoozing government officials is only the tip of the iceberg. Palantir was founded by Peter Thiel – a Trump-backing Silicon Valley billionaire who once stated; "I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” 

Since then, the company has been marred by controversy. The company’s artificial intelligence previously powered US intelligence operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and human rights activists have openly criticized its technology for causing discrimination and bias when used in ‘predictive’ police work. This is troubling because Palantir provides the tools used by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement to conduct deportation raids.

Savvy onlookers will also undoubtedly raise an eyebrow because of Palantir’s overwhelming need for lucrative new contracts. Palantir was previously highlighted as a company that investors should avoid because it "burns through piles of cash.” Thankfully for Palantir, and those invested in it, NHS patient data has now been drafted to prop up its questionable business.

Why the big secret?

It seems important for a decent dose of scepticism whenever governments act without proper public consultation. openDemocracy feels that health secretary Matt Hancock and his advisers must have known that the deal "wouldn’t look good.” This begins to explain the secrecy surrounding the hush deal.

Kailash Chand, former deputy chair of the British Medical Association, has gone on the record to state that the loss of trust caused by the government's shady dealings will make it "difficult for people like me to convince ethnic minority people that this is being done in their best interests.”

According to the government, Palantir will help the NHS to address the issue of "vaccine hesitancy” among Black, Asian and migrant communities. One can’t help feeling Palantir isn't up to that job, due to the criticism it has received for developing technology that results in discriminatory feedback loops.

openDemocracy believes the problems facing the NHS are multifaceted and stretch further than just the Palantir deal:

"The future of the NHS is being written now, in the latest chapter of the pandemic. The government has put us on notice that sweeping changes to our health service are on the way. They present both opportunities and grave risks.”

Redacted

To add insult to injury, it is impossible to know exactly what data is being amassed by Palantir. The government has redacted the list of health-data sources being leveraged, resulting in a total lack of transparency.

This is unconscionable considering the security and privacy ramifications involved with the collection and processing of medical data. And is exactly why such a contract should never have been granted without proper public consultation. 

"If our legal challenge is successful, it’ll be an important step towards making sure our NHS health data can be used only in ways the public can trust. After a year of repeated ‘COVID cronyism’ scandals and massive failures – from Serco’s disastrous mishandling of ‘test and trace’ to last week’s ruling that Hancock acted unlawfully over PPE – it’s time for a different approach.”

Anybody who wishes to support openDemocracy's legal challenge can do so by donating here

 

Written by: Ray Walsh

Digital privacy expert with 5 years experience testing and reviewing VPNs. He's been quoted in The Express, The Times, The Washington Post, The Register, CNET & many more. 

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