Palantir deal for UK health service offers a worrying glimpse of the EHDS future

health data security © Can Stock Photo gina_sanders

(22 November 2023) The English National Health Service (NHS) announced on November 21st its decision to award controversial US data group Palantir a £330 million contract to build its Federated Data Platform (FDP). The FDP is aimed at integrating NHS databases in order to extract insights through data analysis, in theory allowing the NHS to more effectively manage resources and deliver better patient outcomes. Despite these undoubtedly positive goals, the involvement of Palantir in managing the FDP raises serious concerns regarding data protection, public ownership, and the increasingly close links between American big tech and governments all around the world. The Palantir contract represents a "worst-case scenario" for the proposed European Health Data Space, the EU's equivalent of the FDP that is currently being debated by the Union's legislature.

It would be hard to imagine a company less suitable to run a public health data system. Palantir is best known for its ties to the security, defence and intelligence sectors, most notoriously being linked with the US' Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Palantir’s founder, Peter Thiel, has given large funds to far right movements in America, and has stated that he likes data because it's much less regulated than physical assets. His notable quotes include: "Technology is an alternative to politics - You can change the world without having to persuade people why’ and ‘get rid of government regulation of technology" and perhaps most chillingly in light of the recent findings about the role of racism in patient outcomes, he has said: "the problems of sexism and racism have been vastly exaggerated". Furthermore, he has publicly called for the UK NHS to be privatised.

The links between the current UK Conservative government and Palantir have also raised questions. The initial bid was open for only one month and considering Palantir's existing work for the NHS, campaigners described the contract as lacking in serious competition and being created with Palantir in mind. Furthermore, NHS England's former AI chief was hired directly by Palantir in 2022, further raising concerns regarding the company's influence over policymakers. The lack of serious alternatives means that Palantir will likely not be particularly scrutinised and will lead to contract "lock-in", whereby the NHS will be unable to replace the US tech giant, even if Palantir acts unethically or illegally.

Although the FDP contract forbids the use of patient data for commercial gain, there is no guarantee that English patients' privacy will be respected. Unions, members of Parliament and digital rights campaigners have all pointed to the fact that health data is far too rich to be properly anonymised. Simply put, Palantir has the means, the motive and evidently the political favour to use personal health data for uses totally unrelated to public health. This is made more concerning by the fact that English patients have no right to prevent their personal health data from falling into Palantir's hands.

Jan Willem Goudriaan, EPSU General Secretary said: "This contract shows the issues we can expect from private contractors running our health data management, expecting to benefit from data mining to make profits. The EU legislators must learn from England's mistake and ensure that the European Health Data Space is founded on public trust, hence the need for an opt-in and a clear commitment to public healthcare systems. We expect the European Parliament to protect Europe’s people from exploitation."

For previous articles

For a report of Foxglove (UK) on the risks of Palentir running the NHS data platform