It started with a £1 contract.
Within the hours after a pandemic was declared in March 2020, Palantir, the secretive American knowledge analytics firm, was invited to 10 Downing Avenue together with different tech teams, together with Amazon, Google and Meta, to debate the way it may assist the British authorities reply.
Inside days, Palantir’s software program was processing streams of knowledge from throughout England’s Nationwide Well being Service, with Palantir engineers embedded to assist. The corporate’s providers, utilized by the C.I.A. and Western militaries for greater than a decade, have been deployed to trace emergency room capability and direct provides of scarce tools.
Palantir charged the federal government just one pound.
The deal offered the corporate with a beneficial toehold. Since then, Palantir, which is chaired by Peter Thiel, the billionaire investor and certainly one of President Donald J. Trump’s main 2016 donors, has parlayed the work into greater than £60 million in authorities well being contracts. Its largest reward could also be but to come back: a seven-year contract price as much as £480 million — about $590 million — to overtake N.H.S. England’s outdated affected person knowledge system.
However an outcry over Palantir’s speedy ascent inside the N.H.S., the beleaguered however beloved public establishment that gives free well being care throughout the nation, has been constructing for months amongst some lawmakers, docs and privateness campaigners. It may come to a head in October, when the profitable bid is predicted to be introduced.
The contract Palantir is competing for would create one of many largest repositories of well being knowledge on this planet and make the corporate a key companion in modernizing the well being system, which has an annual finances of £160 billion. Civil society teams have raised alarms a couple of single personal firm dealing with a lot private knowledge, particularly one dogged by considerations that its software program can be utilized for mass surveillance. Throughout the Trump administration, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement company used Palantir software program to assist discover undocumented immigrants.
The unease additionally displays a tradition conflict. Palantir, which has a market value of over $30 billion, has employed a lobbying playbook honed within the U.S., at instances ruffling British officers unaccustomed to its assertive strategy. It has enlisted political figures, senior well being executives and a number of consulting corporations, in response to interviews with N.H.S. officers, business insiders and other people concerned in Palantir’s operations. In 2022, after requests for proposals have been searched for the £480 million contract, Palantir poached N.H.S. England’s deputy director of knowledge providers and its synthetic intelligence director.
The corporate’s growth within the N.H.S. has coincided with a disaster on the 75-year-old well being service, after years of constrained funding and staffing shortages. The criticism of Palantir is a part of a fierce debate in Britain concerning the position of profit-seeking corporations inside a taxpayer-funded system, in addition to the dealing with of delicate affected person info. Most Britons oppose additional privatization of the well being service, polls present.
In Parliament, greater than a dozen lawmakers from throughout the political spectrum have referred to as for higher transparency over the main points of the £480 million contract. David Davis, a Conservative member of Parliament, instructed The New York Occasions he would ask England’s public spending watchdog to evaluation “any contracts awarded to Palantir.”
“Palantir’s intensive lobbying efforts within the U.Ok. are an apparent try to whitewash their background on the coronary heart of the world of espionage — with all its implications for moral conduct and lack of transparency,” he mentioned in an announcement.
Palantir declined to touch upon its bid, however mentioned it was proud to help “the world’s most necessary personal and public establishments.” The corporate defended the standard of its work and mentioned, “We are actually serving to to cut back the N.H.S. backlog, minimize the period of time nurses and docs have to spend on administrative duties and velocity up most cancers analysis — all whereas rigorously defending knowledge privateness.”
N.H.S. England mentioned the applying course of was “truthful and clear” and that each one corporations have been being handled equally. “Bids are evaluated in opposition to the identical goal standards that has been shared with all suppliers,” it mentioned in an announcement.
A Push for Progress
Talking at Oxford College in January, Mr. Thiel went off script. The N.H.S. makes individuals sick and may embrace privatization, he mentioned in response to a query. The British public’s help for the service, he mentioned, was “Stockholm syndrome.”
Palantir rapidly distanced itself from Mr. Thiel’s feedback, however they appeared to verify critics’ fears about welcoming the enterprise into the well being service.
Named after the seeing stones in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” Palantir, based in 2003, initially marketed its know-how as a instrument for monitoring terrorists and criminals — together with, in response to news reports it has republished, Osama bin Laden. Its software program collects knowledge from myriad inputs, together with web visitors and cellphone information, and may combine feeds from virtually any supply a shopper has entry to.
It’s utilized by the C.I.A. and the Pentagon, whereas in Britain it has been utilized by the Ministry of Protection since at the very least 2018, in response to Tussell, an organization that tracks authorities contracts.
In 2018, Palantir employed the consulting agency World Counsel to place it as a good companion to the British authorities, not a shadowy American navy contractor, in response to two former senior workers on the consultancy who spoke on situation of anonymity as a result of that they had signed nondisclosure agreements.
Palantir bought assist from a number of politically related advisers.
One was Nicola Blackwood, a former well being minister centered on N.H.S. innovation, who took a part-time place at World Counsel in April 2018. Her beforehand unreported reference to Palantir was a part of her work to offer purchasers with “political threat evaluation,” in response to information she offered to a authorities watchdog.
Ms. Blackwood returned to the well being ministry from 2019 to 2020. She has since been paid by Global Counsel to attend quite a lot of occasions in her position as chair of Genomics England, in response to authorities disclosures, typically showing with Palantir representatives. After being contacted by The Occasions in March, she pulled out of a talking engagement with World Counsel the place she had been set to seem alongside a Palantir govt, at an occasion referred to as “Rebooting the N.H.S.”
In an announcement, Ms. Blackwood’s workplace mentioned her position at World Counsel concerned offering strategic recommendation and had been accredited by Britain’s anti-corruption watchdog. It mentioned her interplay with Palantir was restricted, that she by no means lobbied on the corporate’s behalf and that the occasion cancellation resulted from an surprising schedule change.
Two months after resigning as deputy chief govt of N.H.S. England in 2019, Matthew Swindells additionally joined World Counsel, the place he suggested Palantir. He chaired the corporate’s well being advisory board even after changing into joint chair of 4 outstanding N.H.S. hospital trusts, well being service documents present. One of many trusts, Chelsea and Westminster, was the primary to participate in a authorities pilot to check Palantir’s know-how. (The belief mentioned Mr. Swindells was excluded from decision-making associated to Palantir.)
Shane Tickell, the chief govt of 1 N.H.S. contractor, Voror Well being Applied sciences, recounted assembly with Mr. Swindells final 12 months. Mr. Swindells, he mentioned, instructed Voror construct software program to work with Palantir’s methods and added that the well being service might need cash obtainable if it did. “It left me feeling awkward and uncomfortable,” mentioned Mr. Tickell, who later joined a British consortium to problem Palantir for the N.H.S. contract, pledging to safeguard affected person knowledge. (The bid was unsuccessful.) He offered a calendar merchandise and dated notes from the assembly to corroborate his account.
Mr. Tickell mentioned he believed Palantir had an inside monitor to win the massive knowledge contract due to its work through the pandemic and its ties to the federal government.
Mr. Swindells mentioned in an announcement that he now not chaired Palantir’s well being advisory board and that his World Counsel work had all the time been declared to the well being service. He declined to touch upon the assembly with Mr. Tickell.
A Rising Backlash
Final 12 months, a government-commissioned evaluation warned the N.H.S. to “keep away from unique industrial preparations” round its knowledge, describing many years of affected person information as “buried treasure” that might save lives if safely shared with researchers. The creator, Prof. Ben Goldacre, famous that the info represented among the most delicate info that may very well be held about people, from psychological well being assessments to abortion information. Sharing it with analysts “is a particularly severe enterprise whose gravity mustn’t ever be underestimated, if the N.H.S. is to keep up belief,” he wrote.
Towards this delicate political backdrop, Palantir has emphasised that it could not accumulate or monetize N.H.S. knowledge, however merely present the software program to investigate it. Concurrently, it has tried to form the dialog across the position of personal corporations in well being care.
It employed Fleetwood Technique, the consultancy co-founded by Isaac Levido, a political adviser to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Palantir additionally gave cash to assume tanks and business teams, sponsoring two events on the Institute for Authorities that included its personal workers members as audio system, and funding a Christmas get together for the Cambridge Well being Community, an business physique that brings collectively N.H.S. and company executives.
Palantir joined a tech business commerce group, TechUK, and urged its members to foyer authorities companies to undertake a “purchase vs. construct” coverage of buying industrial know-how slightly than creating it internally.
Others bristled at their strategy.
At a TechUK assembly in August 2021, Palantir’s efforts have been referred to as “appallingly conceited” by Ian Harris, the consultant of VMware, a software program firm, in response to a abstract of the assembly made by a Palantir govt and reviewed by The Occasions. “It’s not for business to inform authorities whether or not it ought to construct or purchase,” Mr. Harris mentioned. (He didn’t reply to a request for remark.)
Whereas some well being officers praised Palantir’s software program, notably for its usefulness within the Covid vaccination program, questions have emerged over whether or not its providers are suited to the advanced wants of the N.H.S., which differ between areas and forms of care.
Milton Keynes College Hospital Belief in Buckinghamshire was chosen final 12 months to check Palantir software program as a part of a pilot to alleviate a backlog of sufferers awaiting therapy. The know-how was supposed to tug knowledge from well being information, ready lists, surgical procedure schedules and elsewhere to assist prioritize appointments.
However Palantir’s software program was not appropriate with the hospital’s affected person administration system, that means employees needed to manually enter some knowledge, in response to two hospital officers who would solely share the knowledge on situation of anonymity. Palantir instructed officers it could resolve the difficulty, however the hospital suspended the mission after weeks handed with no repair, the officers mentioned.
The know-how did work in some hospitals, with 24 trusts “realizing advantages,” a well being minister mentioned in August. At one, it helped cut back a backlog of nonemergency surgical procedures and most cancers remedies by 28 p.c. However 11 hospitals and well being trusts paused or deserted their involvement within the pilot program, the federal government mentioned in March. One mentioned the software program “didn’t totally meet its wants or priorities,” whereas one other determined its current system “offered present capabilities.”
Palantir mentioned in an announcement that at the very least 4 of the hospitals had since resumed utilizing the software program and that its know-how was “extensively acknowledged as greatest at school.”
Whether or not the corporate secures the N.H.S. deal could not solely affect the well being service’s future, but additionally its personal.
“This can be a very pivotal contract,” mentioned Rishi Jaluria, a managing director at RBC Capital Markets, who tracks the corporate. “It’s going to form the narrative round Palantir.”