The NHS has sparked controversy by handing the US spy tech company Palantir a £330m contract to create a huge new data platform, leading to privacy concerns around patients’ medical details.
The move immediately prompted concerns about the security and privacy of patient medical records and the suitability of Palantir to be given access to and oversight of such sensitive material.
NHS England has given Palantir and four partners including Accenture a five-year contract to set up and operate the “federated data platform” (FDP).
Palantir is known for working closely with intelligence agencies and military organisations around the world, such as the CIA and UK Ministry of Defence. Peter Thiel, its billionaire founder and chair, backed Donald Trump in his 2016 presidential election.
Thiel, a libertarian, told an Oxford Union debate in January that the NHS makes people sick and should be privatised and Britons’ attachment to it showed they were exhibiting “Stockholm syndrome”.
The platform will be based on software that will allow individual health service trusts as well as the NHS’s 42 integrated care systems – regional groupings of trusts – to “talk” to each other digitally and share data in an attempt to improve care, cut waiting times and make the service more efficient.
For example, it will bring together real-time data on the number of beds in a hospital, the size of waiting lists for planned care and staff rosters, to help hospitals do more operations.
But its creation has been overshadowed by Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs, as well as tech, medical and civil liberties groups, voicing unease about Palantir, the potential for patients’ data being mishandled and also whether patients will be able to opt out of the FDP sharing their data.
Amnesty International said Palantir’s involvement in “serious human rights abuses” meant NHS England should have rejected the bid. The company has come under fire for helping the US immigration enforcement agency (ICE) implement a tough deportation policy that Trump introduced in 2017. Its technology helped enable ICE to identify, exchange information about and track migrants and asylum seekers, and also to plan raids that led to parents being arrested, separated from their children and deported, Open Democracy reported.
Palantir has also supplied technology to governments that allows them to spy on their citizens.
“Palantir is a very troubling choice of service provider for the NHS, given the human rights controversies surrounding the company”, said Peter Frankental, Amnesty’s business and human rights director. “Any NHS public procurement tenderers whose activities have been linked to serious human rights abuses, as is the case with Palantir, should be excluded on grounds of ‘grave professional misconduct’, as permitted under procurement law.”
The public needed “assurance that their personal information won’t be harvested by Palantir for purposes that have little to do with their health”, Frankental added.
The British Medical Association, which had previously voiced concern about the NHS’s alleged lack of scrutiny of bidders on “ethical” grounds, said Palantir’s winning bid was “deeply worrying”.
NHS England sought to allay such concerns. It stressed that none of the companies in the winning consortium would be able to access health and care data without its explicit consent; that it would retain control of all data within the platform; and that it would not include GP data.
It said the new software would be protected by the highest possible standards of security through the deployment of “privacy enhancing technology”.
It had said the day before the announcement that patients would not be allowed to opt out because it would anonymise all data before it was shared and also because the data would be used for “direct patient care”, for which no opt-out is available. The Foxglove campaign group said it was ready to launch a legal challenge to the apparent denial of a right to opt out.
Sam Smith, of MedConfidential, said: “Whether or not patients will be able to opt out is among the most important of the many unanswered questions about this £330m data project that NHS England’s announcement does not clarify.”
Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said the platform would be “game-changing”. He said: “Clinicians will be able to access live data of available theatre slots, staff availability and individual patient data suitable for particular procedures at the touch of a button.” It could also help the NHS improve how long patients wait for treatment, he added.
But he also warned that the NHS’s unhappy previous history of trying to bring its huge stores of data together – opposition has forced it to abandon two similar projects since 2012 – might mean it struggles to convince the public of the FDP’s potential benefits.