The government has published the contracts for the controversial NHS datastore ahead of a potential court case that might have forced its hand.
NHSX reported it had enleagued Microsoft, Palantir and Google to build a datastore specific to the Covid-19 crisis response at the end of March. Amazon Web Services (AWS) was also said, at the time, to be about to become a participant in the data analytics programme, and has become one since.
Civil liberties organisations Privacy International, Big Brother Watch, medConfidential, Foxglove and the Open Rights Group have been vocal in their objections to the US companies’ involvement in the NHS database. Silicon Valley data mining company Palantir, controversial in the US because of its proximity to the FBI and the CIA, has fallen under particular scrutiny from Privacy International and its partners.
OpenDemocracy, a media organisation, had been about to initiate legal proceedings against the government to have the contracts with Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Palantir and UK artificial intelligence (AI) firm Faculty published. Before they could do so, the government today handed the contracts over to OpenDemocracy and law firm Foxglove.
The organisation stated that: “The contracts show that companies involved in the NHS datastore project, including Faculty and Palantir, were originally granted intellectual property rights (including the creation of databases), and were allowed to train their models and profit off their unprecedented access to NHS data.
“Government lawyers have now claimed that a subsequent (undisclosed) amendment to the contract with Faculty has cured this problem, however they have not released the further contract. OpenDemocracy and Foxglove are demanding its immediate release.”
Meanwhile, Foxglove stated on its site: “We’re still analysing the documents, but at first sight it looks like they’ve backed down significantly and disclosed a significant amount of information. It also appears that our pressure may have already forced them to introduce new safeguards to stop private companies profiteering from NHS data.
“Now we need to assess whether the new safeguards go far enough. And this will all inform an overdue public debate: do we want big tech companies, Faculty and Palantir bedding down with our NHS for the long haul?”
In its statement, OpenDemocracy underlined Palantir’s role in abetting the CIA’s intelligence operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. And in supporting the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency.
Palantir’s CEO, Alex Karp, is an avowed socialist, but civil liberties organisations prefer to draw attention to founder Peter Thiel’s alleged support for US president Donald Trump, as OpenDemocracy does in its statement about the release of the contracts.
According to the contract, Palantir Technologies UK will be paid £1 for the data integration work it is doing on the NHS Covid-19 datastore, through its Foundry technology. The NHS – the buyer is listed as NHS Arden & GEM CSU – will also pay Amazon Web Services on a monthly basis for the duration of the project since the Foundry software is hosted on AWS.
Palantir’s services include “ingestion of mutually agreed data sources and further integration into a data ontology”, configuration of Foundry and user training.
According to the government contract with Faculty, the latter will provide “strategic support to the NHSX AI Lab”. OpenDemocracy emphasises that the company is run by Mark Warner, brother of Ben Warner, who ran the data operation for the Dominic Cummings-led Vote Leave campaign.
The Faculty contract has a value of £930,000.
Faculty’s role is, in part, to provide “short- and long-term forecasts about the spread of Covid-19 and the impact that has on resources across the healthcare system. The short-term forecasts will be generated through extrapolations of data that exists, and long-term forecasts will be generated using simulation… The Faculty team will be collaborating with an epidemiological research group, at Oxford BDI [Big Data Institute], to develop their simulation tool to meet the objectives of the Covid response group.”
Faculty is also working with Palantir to create a dashboard for NHS decision-makers at national, country, regional trust and hospital levels.