A win for Open Democracy and the people: Government loses lawsuit over NHS data deal with Palantir

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A win for Open Democracy and the people

It’s real tears for Hancock this time…

The Tories have been forced to make a U-turn after losing a lawsuit over a £23 million NHS data contract awarded to controversial US firm Palantir.

Palantir, which has become notorious for its close ties to security services and immigration agencies in the United States, secured its first ever deal to handle NHS data in March last year for the nominal sum of £1.

The contract, which was extended in December 2020 and is now worth £23.5m.

Open Democracy announced back in February they were taking the UK government to court after exposing the Tories had just before Christmas, quietly given a CIA-backed firm a major, long-term role in handling our personal health information, held by England’s cherished National Health Service.

The Government claimed it was a short-term, ‘emergency’ response to the COVID crisis. In March, the UK government announced a massive NHS data deal with private tech firms. Experts warned it could involve an ‘unprecedented’ transfer of citizens’ private health information to controversial private firms like Palantir: a secretive artificial intelligence outfit founded by a Trump-backing billionaire.

During months of ensuing legal correspondence, the government assured us that this ‘COVID datastore’ would be unwound at the end of the pandemic and the data destroyed. They also assured us that any extension would go out to public tender, in which taxpayers could see and debate the issues at stake.

All of that turned out to be false.

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What’s Matt Hancock doing with your health data? | Yui Mok/PA Archive/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Open Democracy revealed that the government has now committed to not extending Palantir’s contract beyond COVID without consulting the public. It has also agreed to engage the public, via patient juries, about whether firms like Palantir are appropriate for a long-term role in the NHS at all.

Facing Open Democracy’s lawsuit, the government caved. They’ve pressed pause, committing not to extend Palantir’s contract beyond COVID without consulting the public. There will be no more mission creep without assessing our rights. They have also agreed to engage the public, via patient juries, about whether firms like Palantir are appropriate for a long-term role in the NHS at all.

It’s a major U-turn at a critical moment. The NHS, with its unique trove of structured health data, is powerfully attractive to tech corporations. Palantir and other US tech firms clearly stand to profit from managing or accessing this asset, estimated to be worth £10bn a year.

The NHS datastore is the largest pool of private health data in NHS history, and that raises questions too important to be settled in secret deals. Should it survive the pandemic? On what terms? Should Palantir manage it, or are there more trustworthy alternatives?

The NHS has said that all health data handled under the deal is “pseudonymised, anonymised or aggregated and therefore does not identify any individual”.

But campaigners have complained about a lack of transparency over how the deals were struck, as well as over health secretary Matt Hancock’s longer-term plan for the NHS.

In a statement today Open Democracy said there were “many more battles to fight”.

“We still need full transparency on the Palantir deal: the government continues to refuse to lift key redactions on what data is being fed into Palantir’s datastore,” it said.

“We need to know that the public consultation they’ve promised is far-reaching, not just a box-ticking exercise.”

Colorado-based Palantir, which was founded by outspoken billionaire Peter Thiel in 2003 with support from the CIA, has frequently come under scrutiny from privacy groups.

Who will this brave new world benefit? We have successfully defended the public’s right to be heard before major NHS data deals are signed with large tech firms. It’s now on all of us to speak up if we want our future NHS to serve patients, not profit.

Open Democracy’s stated “Our fight has been about trust. Palantir was founded by a Trump-backing billionaire called Peter Thiel. The firm has a deep and controversial history with US police, and has recently landed a new contract supporting UK border enforcement.”

Read more at Open Democracy Well done, Mary Fitzgerald, Cori Crider

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