Palantir: An unfit partner for our NHS

What is Palantir?

Palantir is a huge US technology corporation, headquartered in Colorado. It was founded in 2003 by a Silicon Valley billionaire called Peter Thiel, who spent over $1 million to help elect Donald Trump. Thiel is Palantir’s chairman and thought to be its largest shareholder. 

Originally funded by the CIA, Palantir’s core business is providing big data and surveillance support to military, security, intelligence and police agencies. Its clients include the US military, the US National Security Agency (NSA), the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, and various US police forces. In 2020 it won a contract from the UK Home Office as part of the UK’s post-Brexit border enforcement.

Palantir has no track record in healthcare, but has identified health data services as a target market. The NHS, with its global reputation, taxpayer funding, and unusually comprehensive datasets, was identified as a particularly lucrative target and Palantir has been wooing NHS bosses over cocktails for some time.

At the start of the covid-19 pandemic, Palantir pounced. It initially offered its services to build a Covid-19 datastore for a token £1 fee. Since then its role (and its fees) have increased. It landed a second contract worth £1 million, and a third worth £23 million over 2 years. Palantir makes no secret of its desire to embed itself in the NHS long term.

An alarming record

As you’d expect from a company specialising in security and surveillance, much of Palantir’s work is secret. However, what we do know reveals a pattern of involvement in controversial programmes criticised for abusing the poor, migrants, and minoritised groups:

  • Family separations and migrant deportations:  Palantir was a key enabler of Donald Trump’s extreme anti-immigration policies. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) used Palantir to run workplace deportation raids and seize family members of unaccompanied migrant children.
  • Mass surveillance by the NSA and GCHQ: Palantir helped the US and UK’s digital spy agencies (NSA and GCHQ) manage mass surveillance programmes like XKEYSCORE. This was one of the systems exposed by whistleblower Edward Snowden for tracking millions of innocent people’s movements online.
  • Racist policing in the US: Many US police forces use Palantir for “predictive policing” - widely criticised for unfair targeting of poor and black communities. In LA, the police used Palantir to build a tool, “LASER”, that claimed it would extract suspected offenders from the community “like a tumor”.
  • Secret Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Palantir provided intelligence software to power the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The exact nature of their involvement remains secret, and the value for money of their services was hotly disputed – Palantir sued the US over it.

Specialists in harm, not healthcare

Palantir is not a health company. It specialises in supporting government agencies to use surveillance and big data technology to identify and target people in conflict zones, at our borders, or for policing. 

Palantir’s corporate ethos is a strange fit for a universal public health service like our NHS. Palantir is used to working with soldiers, spies and police officers - not doctors, nurses or other health professionals focused on caring for patients. They’ve built their business supporting drone and missile strikes, immigration raids, and arrests - not the delivery of care or medicine.

Palantir’s founder and chair, Peter Thiel, is openly hostile to public services like our taxpayer-funded, universal public NHS. He describes himself as a “libertarian” and is a critic of government welfare programmes and of democracy. He vocally backed Donald Trump during his time as US president, when America’s own limited public healthcare (such as “Obamacare”) came under sustained attack.  

Would you trust this company with your health data?

Palantir is not a company that inspires trust. It has a history of treating people as targets or suspects - not as human beings who deserve great healthcare, or whose privacy should be respected. Palantir’s involvement in NHS data projects risks fatally undermining patient participation and confidence.

Our medical and health records are extremely private and personal. We have a right to expect that any gathering and processing of such data is done to the highest standards of ethics and privacy. Past NHS data proposals have failed because they didn’t pass this trust test.

This is even more so for poor people, migrants, and minoritised groups. In the US, Palantir is notorious in these communities, because it delivers systems that target and harm them. In the UK, we are already seeing higher rates of vaccine hesitancy in overpoliced, marginalised, or migrant communities. The involvement of a company like Palantir will only exacerbate this mistrust.