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US surveillance company Palantir nabs £1M UK COVID-19 contract

The UK will be handling the pandemic just as well as the US has in no time!

In for a penny, in for a pound. The UK yesterday revealed US surveillance company Palantir had secured a £1 million contract renewal to continue its work on the country’s COVID-19 data-aggregation project. That’s a hefty increase over the initial contract signed just four months ago for a single British pound.

NHS England aims to build a COVID-19 data store aggregating all of its patient data. Neural’s Thomas Macaulay wrote about the original deal here, where he explained:

Palantir will integrate an array of healthcare information into a single data store through the company’s Foundry software, a data integration tool used by US spy agencies to analyze intelligence.

Originally, the non-compete contract was framed in language that made it seem like Palantir would be figuring out simple logistics such as how many beds and ventilators the UK would need. But the scope of the project has apparently changed.

According to New Statesmen editor Oscar Williams, who first broke the news yesterday, Palantir will be doing a lot more analysis than initially indicated. Williams writes:

While the data store was initially used at a national level to provide NHS officials and ministers with data on bed capacity, ventilator usage and oxygen supply in different parts of the country, it is now also being used by local NHS managers to predict the potential impact of a surge in coronavirus cases on their organisation’s ability to provide routine care.

Microsoft and Amazon are supporting the UK government with cloud services for the data store, but the data-aggregation and modeling are being conducted by Palantir – a company whose bread and butter is providing surveillance capabilities which allow law enforcement agents to bypass the warrant process and circumvent the public’s right to privacy – and Faculty, an AI company that’s mostly known for its work on the Brexit “leave” campaign. Both companies have ties to Cambridge Analytica.

[Read: Trump’s paid Peter Thiel’s Palantir $1.5B so far to build ICE’s mass-surveillance network]

Quick take: Despite the fact that the UK and Palantir have promised the company would give back the data once it was done, this seems just as sketchy as the company’s dealings in the US. Data can be copied and “anonymized” can mean a lot of different things. This should bother anyone who doesn’t completely trust US president Donald Trump, Palantir and Faculty, and the Boris Johnson-led UK government.

Furthermore, Palantir just received a contract with the US Department of Health and Human Services worth $17.4 million to conduct similar work for the Trump administration. Coupled with the fact that President Trump just extricated the US from the WHO and subsequently took the US Center for Disease Control out of the nation’s COVID-19 data sourcing, it appears as though the UK is attempting to emulate the US’s success at dealing with the pandemic.

Good luck with that. Wear a mask.

Published July 16, 2020 — 18:29 UTC