Spy tech firm Palantir was shoo-in for NHS data deal, fresh emails suggest


As published by openDemocracy

Exclusive: Labour and Tory MPs demand review as email chain appears to show health chiefs knew firm would win deal

US spy-tech firm Palantir was a shoo-in for a multi-million-pound NHS contract months before the deal was signed, emails obtained by openDemocracy appear to show.

The email exchange from 2020, in which senior NHS executives discussed the budget for a new national data platform, sees more than one person referring to Palantir as the recipient of the funding.

The firm, owned by billionaire Donald Trump donor Peter Thiel, has won five NHS deals in a row without tender. It is heavily tipped to secure a separate contract worth £480m later this year to build a new “operating system” for the NHS.

Conservative MP David Davis told openDemocracy it was “incredibly concerning that the NHS appears to have already taken decisions to award contracts to Palantir before the end of the procurement process”.

He added: “Allowing a company with Palantir’s provenance into the NHS needs careful scrutiny. It must not be railroaded through in secrecy.”

Palantir officially signed a £23.5m deal on 11 December 2020 to operate a full-scale “datastore” of NHS patient information, building on work carried out in the pandemic.

More than two months earlier, on 5 October 2020, an official from NHS England and NHS Improvement sent an email to the health service’s chief data and analytics officer Ming Tang with the subject line: “Update finances for data platform project [sic].”

The email provided detailed information on how NHS England could structure a budget for the project, and appears to refer to Palantir as the recipient of the funding, stating at one point: “This [the budget proposal] provides a total of £26m for Palantir higher than our previous ask of £24m.”

The exec, whose name is redacted, then asks for “an accountant to support us to get the budget transfers” before warning: “Delays here could lead to risk of non-delivery.”

Tang responded three hours later, writing: “We are trying to keep Palantir to 10-12M per year,” and told the unnamed person to prepare information on the “costs vs funding” of this.

She also said of the proposed budget: “I won’t send him yet – will share screen instead.” The name of the person she is referring to is redacted throughout the documents openDemocracy has seen, and it is unclear what their role is and which organisation they work for.

NHS England has denied any wrongdoing. A spokesperson said: “Clarifications were being sought from several potential suppliers as part of routine financial planning and commercial decision-making.” The spokesperson insisted NHS England had “acted in accordance with all relevant commercial and legal rules”.

But critics say the documents seen by openDemocracy are further proof that Palantir is favoured by NHS executives, despite its controversial links to Donald Trump and the CIA.

Cori Crider, the director of legal campaigners Foxglove, told openDemocracy: “This goes to show that a handful of officials have favoured them from the start.”

Surveillance software
Thiel, the “big money man” for Trump’s Make America Great Again campaign, founded Palantir in 2003 with funding from the CIA-controlled firm, In-Q-Tel. The firm’s clients include the US army, which uses its surveilling software to conduct drone strikes.

British healthcare campaigners have questioned whether a company with Palantir’s history should be entrusted to work in the NHS. In 2021, the government promised not to enter any new contracts with Palantir without consulting the public after openDemocracy and Foxglove took legal action against the Department for Health and Social Care.

But earlier this year an openDemocracy investigation revealed the NHS, seemingly in breach of that pledge, had ordered all English hospitals to share confidential patient information with Palantir.

Parliament must scrutinise why Palantir is being singled out to deliver sensitive data services

Labour MP Rachael Maskell, vice chair of the health select committee

Health service insiders believe Palantir has now been lined up to win a £480m NHS contract later this year to run a “Federated Data Platform”. Final tenders for the platform, which will act as a new “operating system” for the NHS, were due to be submitted last week.

Jo Maugham, the director of Good Law Project, told openDemocracy: “It’s widely believed that Palantir is being lined up for this hugely valuable NHS data contract – despite concerns over what it will do with patient data. These emails support those concerns.”

There are further concerns about the usefulness of Palantir’s software, with 11 hospital trusts either pausing or suspending trials of the company’s Foundry database. Crider said: “Several real-life pilots of Palantir software at hospitals appear to have failed. We’ve called on Parliament to investigate the deal and get to the bottom of the failed pilots before it’s too late.”

Labour MP Rachael Maskell, vice chair of the health select committee, also called for more parliamentary scrutiny. She told openDemocracy: “Before another deal is signed with Palantir, Parliament must have the opportunity to scrutinise the financial operations of NHS England and the way it is handing out contracts, issues concerning public consent over data use, and why Palantir is being singled out to deliver sensitive data services.”

The National Data Guardian
Six weeks after NHS data chief Tang wrote about “trying to keep Palantir to 10-12M a year”, she met the government’s patient privacy champion, Dame Fiona Caldicott, who was then probing the health service’s relationship with Palantir.

A document of Tang’s ‘talking points’ for the 19 November meeting, disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act and dated the previous day, suggested no provider had yet been chosen for the contract: “We have been working with Palantir to continue to build out the modules that we think are critical to our response and to package up the code and data models. And we are currently in an open procurement process for a longer-term solution.”

Caldicott, who has since died, was at the time serving as the UK’s first statutory National Data Guardian and was a hugely influential figure in medical confidentiality. In 2016, her review of the government’s botched attempt to reuse patient data without consent led to the failure of its care.data project.

Caldicott’s successor at the National Data Guardian, Dr Nicola Byrne, warned NHS England last year that its new data platform “must avoid common pitfalls around trust and transparency that have frustrated previous initiatives”.

An NHS England spokesperson told openDemocracy: “The description of the procurement process [in Tang’s talking points] was accurate – it was ongoing, and was being conducted on an open basis within a transparent government procurement framework.”

Palantir told openDemocracy it could not comment on NHS procurement issues.

Read the emails in full