Very concerning reports surfaced via Open Democracy about a deal between the UK government and spy tech firm Palantir, to provide a federated data platform for the NHS. MPs across the house have voiced concerns, including labour’s Clive Lewis and David Davis MP.
Palantir, owned by billionaire Peter Thiel, has a history of insider trading which give it a questionable moral reputation in that the firm won business without any competitive tenders.
Palantir won a large £27mn government deal after former MI6 boss , Sir John Sawers, in office (2009 to 2014) arranged a meeting between Palantir’s CEO and the Cabinet Office permanent secretary, John Manzoni, in 2019.
Brexit has provided a series of benefits and business opportunities for Palantir, which the firm was keen to point out in its sales pitches. Another manifestation of the familiar connections between Brexit, Cambridge Analytics and Trump supporters.
Palantir met with Michael Gove, who held office as a Cabinet Office minister, at the time, to highlight the benefits of their software for the Brexit processes, in which “ risk-based monitoring for the movement of goods and people across the UK border” would be required, claiming that its software would help government to manage the “fast-evolving and unpredictable environment”. (See Open Democracy).
The Cabinet Office gave Palantir a £27mn deal in August 2020 to process border and customs data after Brexit.
It seems not only disaster capitalists engineered Brexit opportunities, but tech giants engineered a lot more than software behind the scenes.
Now Palantir is after the NHS.
Palantir is tipped as favourite to win a £480mn contract to manage NHS England data this autumn as the firm already has a foot in the door from previous contracts with the NHS.
How does the tender process normally work?
Many members of the public may be unaware of the complexities of the tender process for technology projects and compliance matters surrounding these. The tender process allows suitable firms to compete for projects in various areas of information technology, such as software development services, maintenance, infrastructure, and testing.
I have two decades of experience in software services. I have been called upon to assist with sales bids and tenders. The process can be complex and just like the software or other technology projects themselves, it requires a huge team effort on the part of technology specialists and management. Management and technology specialists will normally work with both sales staff and legal and compliance specialists who check alignment with regulatory matters. Special attention will be paid to areas such as security and data protection.
Lengthy lists of questions about the firm’s background experience in technology and the business area of the customer are normally issued.
These cover areas such as
- Staffing resources, example CVS of specialists who may work on the project, are expected.
- Requirements for security screening, security clearance and other background checks will be outlined.
- Management capabilities.
- Test strategies.
- All aspects of operations, maintenance.
- Potentially staff training, knowledge transfer and documentation.
Award criteria in the form of points or percentages are devised.
Customers place high value on the ability of a supplier to support their own work areas and business processes. Sector knowledge is normally required.
The tender process exists to find the best supplier for systems. Bypassing tender processes to award contracts to friends and associates is wrong. Companies who maintain high ethics who are engaged in tenders will require staff on all levels to comply with policies which require them to avoid any form of insider trading and declare any connections. It would be feasible that a particular specialist would be assigned to a different project and disallowed any participation in a tender where he or she had inside information from friends or family.
Worse still, awarding a large NHS data project to a firm which is openly at odds with the raison d’etre of our NHS and its grounding principles is completely at odds with the ethics of a tender process. Palantir does not really support the NHS’s business model when it advocates privatisation. To quote Open democracy:
Palantir’s founder Peter Thiel, said the NHS ‘makes people sick’ and that it should embrace privatisation. He even described the British love of the NHS as “Stockholm Syndrome”, and the whole organisation should be ripped up and started again.
The firm should lose points in that tender process for this attitude alone. This should be a red flag. By awarding projects to friends, management of these public sector entities cannot guarantee that the quality or ethics of the company providing these services is the best on the market.
The UK Doctors’ Association also questioned how much experience Palantir had in health care as its focus has been more on
military, security, and policing projects rather than health.
Why is this project so dangerous?
The new project will centralise all health data for England into a new database, the “Federated Data Platform” (FDP). A coalition from the Doctors’ Association UK, Just Treatment and the National Pensioners Convention wrote to the government to demand answers.
They were worried as they do not know how the platform will work, if the public will be consulted and whether the government will seek patient consent before they change how our healthcare data is managed. Reports surfaced Palantir was already grounding itself in the NHS with a ‘Faster Data Flows’ pilot project, which is repute to involve the transfer of sensitive health data from trusts into Palantir’s Foundry system without patient consent, consultation, or any level of transparency. The data will include patient’s NHS numbers, date of birth, and postcode. This is shocking. It may be a pilot or proof of concept, but why in that case would Palantir gain access to live data? It is common practise in software to work with test data sets. Access to production system data should be restricted. Fortunately, the stiff compliant from the Doctors’ Association and colleagues made government stop its plans to allow data transfers without consent (August 2021-2).
An announcement about the new system’s status and award of the project has not been made yet, although Palantir is tipped to win. Rumour has it the UK Health Secretary. Steve Barclay is now worried about the unpopularity of the plans, and this is delaying his sign off the contract.
Foxglove is one other organisation in addition to Open Democracy that has been working with patients’ groups and doctors’ groups, challenging the plans in the courts and in parliament. There is still time to write to your MP and sign online petitions against this deal.
Open Britain too made the point that Lord Evans, outgoing chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL), bemoaned the UK’s “very weak” compliance with ethical standards, urging for a complete “overhaul” of the way we regulate ministerial conduct.
If we look over the fence at our friends in the EU, innovations in compliance matters regarding data and identity have made advances in terms of granting citizens’ control over their own data with the new European standards such as Self Sovereign IDentity. Britain seems to have digressed into what we can only describe as murky moral waters, as unclean as the sewerage flows invading our waterways.