openDemocracyUK: Investigation

Revealed: Trump backer’s spy firm used by Met Police and Cabinet Office

Palantir's software was trialled by the Met Police and the Cabinet Office. The CIA-backed tech firm lobbied Gove, Hancock and others before winning key NHS contract.

Peter Geoghegan
Peter Geoghegan
11 June 2020, 1.21pm
The Palantir Pavilion at the World Economic Forum, Davos
Cory Doctorow

Controversial data-mining firm Palantir Technologies significantly stepped up its lobbying of British ministers, including Michael Gove and Matt Hancock, in the months before it was awarded a crucial NHS contract, openDemocracy can reveal today.

After a meeting with Gove in September 2019, the Cabinet Office trialled Palantir software "to test the viability of an analysis and reporting framework" for Brexit.

openDemocracy has also found that the Metropolitan Police trialled Palantir’s Predictive Policing software in 2016 – which has been accused of creating a “racist feedback loop” in some American police forces – and that senior Met figures have attended events hosted by Palantir, including at the firm’s London offices. 

Last week, openDemocracy published for the first time Palantir’s contract to work on the NHS COVID-19 ‘datastore’ project, which gives ministers and officials access to real-time information about the health of millions of NHS users. The datastore contracts were not put out to competitive tender, and ministers only released them hours before openDemocracy and tech justice firm Foxglove were due to sue for disclosure.

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Palantir is one of Silicon Valley’s most contentious companies. Co-founded by billionaire Trump funder Peter Thiel, Palantir has built spyware for police, been forced to pay compensation for racial discrimination and faced criticism from its own employees for helping to apprehend and deport undocumented workers. 

Opposition politicians and privacy campaigners have accused the government of creating an “Orwellian nightmare” by giving the firm – which has had almost £40million worth of UK government contracts since 2015 – a key role in the NHS and other key public services.

Helen Hayes, Labour shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, said: “These new revelations about the activities of Palantir in the UK adds to concerns about the lack of transparency in the government’s procurement of services related to COVID-19, potential conflicts of interest and data protection. 

“Now more than ever, public confidence in government is crucial. This will be seriously undermined by the impression that contracts are being handed out, without due process, to companies whose suitability is open to question.”

Cori Crider, founder of Foxglove, said: "Most Britons have probably never heard of Palantir, but it's time they learned. Is a firm started by Peter Thiel, a major donor to Donald Trump, really a fit and proper partner for our NHS?

"We know the pandemic is hitting our Black and Asian fellow citizens the hardest. Putting Palantir – a firm that runs data operations for cops and spies – at the heart of the NHS risks undermining trust in the NHS among those who need it the most.”

Cummings, Gove and Hancock

Named after a magical "seeing stone" used in The Lord of the Rings, Palantir was launched, with CIA backing, in 2003. Co-founder Peter Thiel, best known as the creator of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook, donated $1.25million to the 2016 Trump campaign and has written that democracy is not “compatible” with capitalism.

Having worked for the FBI, the Army, the Navy, the Special Operations Command and the Census Bureau in the United States, Palantir has looked to expand internationally. It has become a fixture at Davos; a January meeting between its CEO and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen attracted controversy. EU law enforcement agency Europol uses technology developed by Palantir and, in March 2019, EU counter-terrorism officials told Palantir that they would “welcome suggestions” for how to stimulate investments in “deep technologies”.

But the UK, in particular, has been a particular focus of its recent expansion. Palantir’s Soho office reportedly doubled in two years to become the firm’s largest last year. British-based software engineers have been hired from Google, Microsoft and Amazon as well as former civil servants and members of the military.

These new recruits have been accompanied by a significant uptick in Palantir’s British lobbying operations. In the months before it was invited to work on NHS data, the US tech company had numerous meetings with government ministers and senior civil servants.

In September 2019, Palantir had a one-on-one meeting with the Cabinet Office’s influential secretary Michael Gove “to discuss Brexit readiness”.

Afterwards, Palantir gave the Cabinet Office a free trial of software "to test the viability of an analysis and reporting framework in relation to EU Exit." The Cabinet Office did not purchase the technology.

Also in September, Palantir was among more than a dozen firms including Google, Microsoft and Deloitte who met with health secretary Matt Hancock “to discuss health data”. Many of these firms were subsequently also given major COVID-19 contracts, without competitive tender.

Hancock, who has long been an advocate of health tech, had previously had two meetings with Palantir as a Cabinet Office minister in 2015. The American company was also part of a group that met then international trade secretary Liam Fox in early 2019 and, separately, took senior civil servants at HMRC out for dinner around the same time. 

openDemocracy asked the Cabinet Office, Department for Health and Social Care and Palantir for more details about what was discussed at these meetings. All declined to provide further information.

Dominic Cummings has long been an admirer of Palantir. Boris Johnson’s special advisor reportedly told Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, that he wanted to build “the Palantir of politics” ahead of the Brexit referendum.

In March 2020, Palantir was one of several businesses that attended Cummings’s big tech COVID-19 meeting and were subsequently enlisted to build the NHS data store. 

Palantir and other firms were chosen for COVID-19 work, the government said, “because of their knowledge in data and the skills they have for working in complex environments and delivering at pace in this time of crisis.” Under the deal, Palantir provides the data engineering services through its Foundry platform, collating anonymised datasets on what is called “NHS Foundry”.

Contracts published by openDemocracy last week showed that Palantir is being paid just £1 for its NHS work – prompting concerns that the tech firm expects to secure far more lucrative work in the future. 

“It might be that in the face of it Palantir appears not to get much from this deal at this moment,” said Ilia Siatitsa, programme director at Privacy International. “But if you look at how Palantir has operated in the past, they make themselves indispensable to how government works. Once they are in, they are very hard to get out.”

So far, Palantir has struggled to break into British contracting. The firm’s UK arm made an overall loss of £15m in 2018 after spending £184m – £64m more than the year before.

Predictive policing and racial discrimination

The overwhelming majority of Palantir’s British government contracts have so far come from the Ministry of Defence. In 2019, Palantir secured a reported £28 million MoD contract for “the provision and support of a search visualisation and analysis system.”

The previous year, the firm had hired Major General James Robert Chiswell as an advisor after the decorated soldier retired from the British army.

Palantir also won £9m of military contracts in 2015-16, and a £1.7m deal in 2018 to help the MoD stem the tide of staff leaving the Royal Navy. It also won a £741,000 Cabinet Office deal in 2015.

Palantir is a major player in American defence and policing contracting. Last year Palantir won a $800 million contract to build the US Army's next battlefield software system. Earlier this year Palantir secured a contract worth as much as $823 million to provide software to the Department of Defense.

The firm has been heavily criticised for its work with US police forces and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Palantir’s ‘predictive policing’ software can map out huge amounts of information about suspects – and even their family, friends and business partners.

Palantir was keen to move into British policing. In 2016, it was one of three data firms enlisted by the Metropolitan police to provide predictive crime mapping software, according to documents obtained by openDemocracy. The Met subsequently decided to use its own in-house software as “the cost of implementing the commercial products was too great”.   

The firm appears to remain interested in British policing. In July 2018, the Met’s chief Cressida Dick attended a reception at Palantir’s Soho office hosted by business group London First.

In November 2019, Palantir provided £3,000 worth of reception drinks to the Met Police for a counter terrorism border conference. As part of the sponsorship Palantir was permitted to have a promotional stand at the event.

The following month, Lancashire assistant chief constable Tim Jacques attended a drinks reception sponsored by Palantir

A Met police spokesman told openDemocracy that the force “continues to use cutting edge academic research to inform an algorithm that populates crimes on a map to suggest patrol areas that will maximise the deterrent value of policing activity….We do not use any person-specific data to make predictions using algorithms or similar technology.”

‘A fox in the datastore’

The Department of Health and Social Care has said that at the end of the public health emergency any data produced by the COVID-19 datastore project will either be deleted or returned to the NHS. 

But with a reported 45 Palantir engineers working on the datastore essentially for free, some are concerned that the NHS’s reliance on Palantir software could make it almost impossible for the health service to dispense with the tech company after the pandemic.

“The government is giving private companies such as Palantir unprecedented access to NHS data behind the scenes, and that is a huge concern. It sounds like the beginning of an Orwellian nightmare,” said Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran.

“These deals, and any lobbying around them, must be properly scrutinised to ensure that we’re not letting a fox into the data store.”

Foxglove’s Cori Crider, a US citizen, said that Britain needed to look across the Atlantic at the American experience with Palantir. "The UK government needs to consider the concerns of all communities before partnering with firms like Palantir,” she said.

“They should study the system set up by cities like Oakland in the US, which forbade police from buying more surveillance tech without discussing those contracts openly with citizens. That is a safeguard worth extending across the public sector, as public bodies buy more and more powerful tech to grade and sort us."

Steve Goodrich, head of research at Transparency International, said Britain needs far greater transparency around lobbying and public contracts. 

“Government spends billions of pounds in taxpayers’ money every year, yet there is often very little information about who is seeking to influence where these funds go. 

“Given the amount of money at stake, there ought to be much greater transparency over the lobbying of those in high office, yet what happens in Whitehall still remains frustratingly opaque. The public should have greater access to information about who’s lobbying who, why and for what purpose.”

Additional reporting by Jenna Corderoy.

This piece was updated on June 10 to include more details of the Cabinet Office's trial with Palantir.

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