The NHS is being taken to court over its contract with controversial data-mining company Palantir.

The legal action has been filed by political website Open Democracy, which said it had launched the challenge over Palantir’s long-term involvement in the analysis of vast amounts of public health data.

Palantir has often been targetted by privacy campaigners, and in September 2020 it held a presentation for investors ahead of a planned stock listing on the NYSE to explain a bit more about its unusual structure.

Data mining

The Denver-based company is considered controversial by some, as it was founded in 2003 (allegedly with support from the CIA), in the wake of the 11 September attacks on New York City.

It focuses on automating analysis tasks previously carried out by human intelligence agents.

Prior to its listing, the company had never been profitable, due in part to the necessity of customising its software for each client, and it relies heavily on contracts with the Central Intelligence Agency, the US military and other branches of the US government.

The company’s co-founder, Peter Thiel, is a well-known supporter of US president Donald Trump, and the firm was criticised for taking on work such as helping the US customs agency identify illegal immigrants for deportation.

Questions were already being asked about allowing Palantir to carry out Covid-19-related data analysis work in the UK, during the start of the Coronavirus pandemic in Q1 2020.

The firm helps analyse huge volumes of data from governments and others, and sorts through the tangle for useful insights, patterns and connections.

Website challenge

Now political website Open Democracy said it was challenging the UK government, and has filed a lawsuit.

“We’ve just issued a lawsuit over their £23m NHS data deal with controversial ‘spy tech’ company Palantir,” said the website. “We’re taking the government to court because, right before Christmas, they quietly gave this CIA-backed firm a major, long-term role in handling our personal health information, and in England’s cherished National Health Service.”

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

“The secrecy around what the government is doing with NHS data, working with companies like Palantir, will damage what trust is left amongst ethnic communities, for migrants, and in the NHS family as a whole,” claimed Kailash Chand, former deputy chair of the British Medical Association. “

It makes it difficult for people like me to convince ethnic minority people that this is being done in their best interests,” he added.

Anonymous data

Under the Palantir deal, NHS data is apparently anonymised – with no names, addresses, or other identifying details – and it is not kept by Palantir. The firm contributes use of its software and staff, but does not store the data itself, which remains under the control of the NHS.

But the lawsuit is about whether a fresh Data Protection Impact Assessment needed to be done for the revised deal, the BBC reported.

An NHS spokesperson told the BBC an assessment had been done in April, “and an update will be published in due course”.

This is not the first time that a data deal involving NHS data has ran into trouble, for example the controversy caused when Google’s DeepMind Health signed a data sharing agreement with hospitals run by London’s Royal Free NHS Trust in 2016.

Under the terms of that data sharing agreement, DeepMind was given access to five years worth of data, covering 1.6 million patients, most of whom did not have acute kidney injury or disease.

The agreement prompted an investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office, and was also criticised by privacy rights campaigners.

In 2017 the ICO ruled that the data sharing between the Royal Free NHS Trust and Google’s DeepMind artificial intelligence (AI) division was illegal.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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