It’s one of the biggest stories of Britain’s pandemic: lucrative public contracts going to outsourcing firms, allies of Dominic Cummings, and shady tech companies. We’ve been told the emergency means the usual processes have to be skipped – that there’s just no time for the niceties of procurement law or democratic debate when people are dying.
What that’s meant, in practice, is a new set of systems that are likely to stick around after the crisis ends. The government has claimed its coronavirus contracts are temporary, and will be rolled back at the end of the crisis. But it keeps handing out public money with no transparency and no debate.
One of the most important of these deals was between big tech firms and our NHS. The government quietly announced in a blog on 28 March that it had signed deals with US tech giants Amazon, Microsoft, and Google – plus two controversial AI films, Faculty and Palantir – to create a giant COVID-19 datastore that represented potentially the largest transfers of patient data to private companies in the history of the NHS.
openDemocracy and Foxglove, a tech justice start-up, sent a legal letter demanding the UK government urgently publish details of its controversial patient data deals with big tech companies. Over 14,000 of you joined our call. And we won – on the day our court papers were due to be lodged, the government caved, and published all the COVID-19 data store contracts.
Now it emerges that one of those contracts – between the NHS and Peter Thiel’s CIA-linked Palantir - has leapt from £1 to £1 million for a four-month extension. Who knows what the next round will cost? Is this system really temporary or the start of something more permanent?
There’s no democratic mandate for the involvement of a firm like Palantir in the NHS. For years the firm’s bread and butter has been in security – from the CIA to predictive policing in the US to controversial Immigration and Customs Enforcement work. Its predictive policing technology was binned by the LAPD after it was found to have “eroded public trust” following concerns it disproportionately targeted black communities. How are black UK residents, facing twice the risk of virus death, likely to feel about such a firm’s involvement?
NHS England says that as part of the new deal, “Palantir has been asked to “package up the work they’ve been doing so the service can go out to tender in an open procurement process”. But we know the tech firms involved would like to stick around for the long haul. A “source close to the project” briefed the New Statesman that Palantir would be, as the magazine summarised it, “well placed to continue providing the service after the coronavirus outbreak comes to an end”.
Late last year, The Register reported on a closed-door meeting between major tech and pharma companies and senior NHS officials. That set out nine possible “commercial models” to build and run a “cradle to grave” health data set – with various terms of corporate access to that data being mooted, including the idea of the NHS receiving a “discount on any product developed”, a “stake in the company”, “an upfront fee for access to the data”, or a “royalty fee” for use of the data or intellectual property. And in March, Chief advisor Dominic Cummings invited tech firms including Palantir to attend a closed door meeting at Number 10 to set out how they could help address the coronavirus pandemic.
This underscores what we’ve said from the start: the entire exercise of awarding contracts during the pandemic suffers from a profound democratic deficit that needs fixing.
The last case showed your concerns were right. The initial contracts allowed the companies to profit from their emergency access to NHS data. They retained the intellectual property (IP) from their work on the project, but under the glare of public transparency, the Faculty contract was hastily revised to hand that right back to the NHS.
We got a stroppy letter from Palantir after we pointed this out. The claimed that they generated no intellectual property rights (IPRs) from the project. We wrote back to them asking if they could clarify. Was their position was that Palantir does not own, and will not own, any Project Specific IPRs?
We added: "Is your position that Palantir only owns, and will only own, Background IPRs – namely [an] ‘off the shelf’ product... with no modifications or enhancement as a result of its use in this context?”. That was over a month ago. We’re still waiting for a reply.
The next wave of legal challenge needs to target this lack of democracy. The NHS has duties to involve the public when it makes decisions that can affect the care of every patient.
The NHS is Britain’s most cherished and trusted public institution because it is universal and free for everyone. People need to know that all of its partners are worthy of similar levels of public trust. Can Palantir and other large tech firms meet such a stringent democratic test? We aim to find out.