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NHS facing legal challenge over data deal with controversial Silicon Valley firm Palantir

Written by on 24 February 2021

The NHS is facing a legal challenge over its data deal with controversial Silicon Valley firm Palantir, Sky News can reveal.

Palantir, which has become notorious for its close ties to security services and immigration agencies in the United States, secured its first ever deal to handle NHS data in March last year for the nominal sum of £1.

Legal group Foxglove announced today that it was bringing a court case against the health service to force it to reconsider the contract, which was extended in December 2020 and is now worth £23.5m.

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The lawsuit is the latest challenge over procurement during the pandemic, which has become a highly contentious topic in recent months, with critics accusing the government of favouring its own contacts.

It comes as a batch of internal government emails uncovered by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism and seen by Sky News reveal that high-level meetings took place between Palantir and the most senior officials in government and the NHS before the pandemic, raising questions about the role of personal relationships in the award of the contract.

The lawsuit claims that NHS England failed to consider the impact of the renewed deal on patients and the public by performing a fresh Data Protection Impact Assessment – a claim the health service denies.

“This is a giant tech company seeking to establish what will be a permanent beachhead in the NHS and we think that people have the right to know about that and debate it before it’s too late,” said Cori Crider, co-founder of Foxglove, which is bringing the case on behalf of news site openDemocracy.

An NHS spokesperson said: “The company is an accredited supplier to the UK public sector, the NHS completed a Data Protection Impact Assessment in April 2020, and an update will be published in due course.”

Although Palantir does not store any health data itself, Foxglove claims that by using its data analytics software for tasks such as the vaccine rollout, the NHS is putting public trust at risk.

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NHS insiders say that Palantir’s tool has proved immensely useful at marshalling the health service’s disparate streams of data, but Ms Crider said that the NHS was “naive” to think its relationship with the much-criticised firm would not damage fragile trust among minority ethnic communities.

“The government’s vaccine campaigns teach us that there is no public health without public trust,” Ms Crider told Sky News, citing criticism of Palantir by human rights groups for its work with US police forces and Immigration and Customs Enforcement as potential sources of unease.

The lawsuit comes as a trove of internal UK government documents released to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism under the Freedom of Information Act shows how Palantir wooed senior NHS and government figures long before it was awarded a contract with the health service.

The emails reveal that in July 2019 Louis Mosley, Palantir’s UK head, hosted a dinner discussion chaired by Conservative peer David Prior, the chair of NHS England.

They drank watermelon cocktails, which Lord Prior later valued at £60.

The next evening, Mr Mosley emailed Lord Prior, thanking him for “a fascinating and thought provoking discussion”. He added: “I’m more convinced than ever that the UK is uniquely placed to pioneer the next generation of medical discoveries and treatments.”

Hours later Lord Prior replied, encouraging Mr Mosley to get in touch “if you can see ways where you could help us structure and curate our data”.

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Despite this non-committal response, Mr Mosley continued to stay in touch with Lord Prior. In early October, the Palantir boss met with Matthew Gould, the former diplomat who had been appointed head of NHSX. “A very positive meeting,” he told Lord Prior over email, inviting him to a demonstration in San Francisco in January.

Lord Prior took up the offer. On 14 January 2020, he took a team of five NHS officials to Palantir’s San Francisco headquarters, where they met with the company’s “Healthcare Life Sciences brain trust”, a group of around 10 of the tech company’s engineers and health science specialists.

According to “quick rough notes” compiled by an official the day after the meeting, aides came away believing that Palantir’s all-purpose data software product was “focused exclusively on the Heath Care Market in the UK”.

Palantir and NHS England declined to comment on the contents of the emails, but spokespeople for both organisations insisted that the meetings had nothing to do with the award of any contracts.

Ms Crider reacted to this with scepticism, saying: “What’s the watermelon cocktail for if not to curry favour and influence?”

She said the emails raised questions about the contract first granted to Palantir in March 2020, which was portrayed as an immediate response to an “unprecedented challenge”, rather than a long-term arrangement.

The emails reveal the extensive contacts between Palantir and the UK government. The week after his meeting with Lord Prior, Mr Moseley met with the UK’s top trade official, Antonia Romeo, who he hosted at Palantir’s pavilion in Davos at the World Economic Forum.

According to briefing notes prepared for Ms Romeo, who was then permanent secretary at the Department for International Trade (DIT), the “objectives” of the meeting included stressing that the UK was “a great location for Palantir to expand their software business”.

DIT officials also said they wanted to “understand how we can support their [Palantir’s] growth in the UK”, saying they would like to know “how we help with recruitment, identifying real estate for expansion, planning for visas”.

A DIT spokesperson denied there was anything unusual about these exchanges, saying: “DIT officials engage with a wide range of businesses as part of their responsibility to support UK trade and investment.”

But critics point out that encouraging investment from Palantir is different, because its primary client is often the government itself.

“The sense from these exchanges is that senior officials are bending over backwards to accommodate Palantir, and not asking critical questions about the way their technologies will reshape the delivery of services,” said technology researcher Rachel Coldicutt.

Since the NHS’s contract with Palantir was first announced, its terms have been extended to cover a far greater range of subjects, including Brexit, flu vaccinations and the ability to “drill down and view changes to workforce data over time”.

Defenders of Palantir said that showed how effective the software had been, but data policy experts warned that the government needed to be more transparent about the changes if it was going to secure public trust.

“The government will squander any opportunities that might exist to better serve the public through the use of data and new technology if it doesn’t have the conversation about what’s acceptable in public and with the public,” said technology researcher Gavin Freeguard.

Matt Hancock’s new plan for health and social care reform, which he unveiled earlier this month, outlines extensive proposals for greater use of health data. It describes the NHS’s work with Palantir as one of its “achievements”.

Last week, the health secretary was found to have broken the law by failing to publish the details of coronavirus-related contracts worth billions within the required time period.

Mr Hancock defended the decision, saying he prioritised fighting the virus over transparency, but Labour called on him to commit to greater transparency to win back public trust.

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