The data behemoth has been implicated in several human rights abuse scandals, and activists critique the secretive deal and its ramifications for the public.
Why did the British National Health Service (NHS) make a secretive deal with a private CIA-backed data mining firm with zero input from its millions of stakeholders?
Organisers at OpenDemocracy asked the same question and launched a lawsuit against the government this week for its contract with the spy tech giant.
In March, the British government revealed a patient datashare plan with Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Faculty and Palantir as part of an emergency response to the coronavirus pandemic.
At the time, the government had assured that the “Covid data store” was only until the end of the pandemic, after which the data would be destroyed. If the deals were to be extended, it was to go out in a public tender, according to legal correspondences when the deal was first announced.
Rather, OpenDemocracy reported, the government quietly signed a £23 million ($32.5 million) deal with the tech firm in early December that opened the way for Palantir's role in the NHS beyond Covid-19.
A Bureau of Investigative Journalism report also revealed that the Palantir deal was not an emergency measure as claimed: NHS chiefs were discussing collaboration with Palantir prior to the pandemic, in 2019, and that the firm was working on a product that “exclusively focused” on Britain’s healthcare market in January 2020.
The first confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the UK were in late January last year.
The digital panopticon is watching you
Why is the NHS's contract with Palantir such a big deal? For one, it was done “sneakily”, with no public input about how and the extent to which the government is sharing confidential health records and data with a US-based private spy firm. Second, OpenDemocracy underlines the hesitancy that many minority communities in the UK have toward the health system, and how secretive deals with controversial firms like Palantir can “damage what trust is left amongst ethnic communities, for migrants, and in the NHS family as a whole”.
Finally, Palantir is not just any American private firm. The shadowy CIA-linked tech giant is infamous for being a “digital panopticon” and has been accused of multiple counts of human rights violations.
Founder Peter Thiel, an avid supporter of Donald Trump, has come under fire for Palantir’s use of “War on Terror tools to track American citizens.” Palantir technology was also deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, it developed racist predictive policing algorithms used in the US, provided digital profiling tools for ICE to carry out deportations, and provided the idea for data mining that led to the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandal - just to name a few.
It’s no surprise that descriptions of the surveillance firm tend to range from the tame “creepy” to “f***ing terrifying”.
Big tech wants to play doctor
While Palantir draws special attention for its notorious and shadowy reputation, it’s not the only tech firm keen on entering the lucrative health field: major tech giants, including Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft have all forayed into the health field in different capacities, whether by acquisition of health related firms, like Google’s purchase of Fitbit, Amazon’s purchase of PillPack; provision of medical record-storing tools or creation and expansion of health-related databases, like Microsoft or Amazon’s cloud services which store hospital and patient data. Some of them have also developed health tracking and diagnostic tools.
The multi-trillion dollar global healthcare industry is certainly attractive to these tech firms, and the fact that national healthcare systems are going through massive changes in recent years due to changes in illness trends, demographics, and technology provides an opportunity for their involvement in and shaping of the system. The coronavirus pandemic itself has revealed cracks in the system and altered aspects of the healthcare field already, with more focus on telehealth than before, for instance.
While big tech has the potential to have a positive impact in the industry, the means of its entry into the field and new scandals every day regarding security vulnerabilities and sloppy handling of data, as well as cover-ups of breaches raises significant ethical questions, particularly about consumer privacy, theft, and exploitation.
Whistleblowers from Amazon described to Politico this week a corporate culture that “prioritizes growth over other factors, such as the security of customers' information, compliance with rules designed to safeguard that data and the careers of employees the company hired specifically to flag problems”.