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NHSX defends Palantir, Google and Amazon’s role in Covid-19 datastore

The NHS has defended its decision to enlist Peter Thiel’s Palantir and a number of other US tech firms in the development of a shared data platform to help meet the heightened demand on its services.

In a statement issued over the weekend, NHSX chief executive Matthew Gould revealed the platform would provide a “robust operating picture” of how the coronavirus is spreading and enable hospitals to allocate resources to the areas where services are set to be most stretched.

But, as reports of the plans emerged last week, privacy activists raised concerns about Palantir’s involvement. The company, which was co-founded by Thiel, a US entrepreneur and investor, in 2003, has received funding from the CIA and worked on a number of controversial US projects including predictive policing, the tracking of migrants and the development of an AI warfare platform for the military.

Palantir did not respond to a request for comment, but in the statement, NHSX said that the company’s Foundry product, which it noted had been “primarily developed in the UK”, would power the front end data platform. The software, the statement continued, “enables disparate data to be integrated, cleaned, and harmonised in order to develop the single source of truth that will support decision-making”.

NHSX said Foundry “is built to protect data by design. A G-cloud data processing contract is in place. Palantir is a data processor, not a data controller, and cannot pass on or use the data for any wider purpose without the permission of NHS England.”

The statement also revealed that NHS England’s technical teams are using Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform to bring the data sources together into a single back-end, while Google’s G Suite tools will “allow the NHS to collect critical real-time information on hospital responses to Covid-19”. Both programmes of work are also governed by a G-cloud data processing contract, NHSX said.

Meanwhile, the London-based AI firm Faculty is overseeing the “development and execution of the data response strategy”, according to the statement. “This includes developing dashboards, models and simulations to provide key central government decision-makers with a deeper level of information about the current and future coronavirus situation to help inform the response.”

Defending the decision to launch the shared data hub, NHSX said: “As we have seen countless times in the last few weeks, a national effort is required to limit the impact of Covid-19, whether that means asking car manufacturers to build ventilators, private hospitals to aid the NHS, or technology firms to provide software to power the response. We believe that the support provided by these partners will enable the Government to respond more effectively to the crisis.”

The datastore will be closed after the crisis has come to an end and it’s expected that the data will either be destroyed or returned to the health service. But NHSX added that it hopes to learn from its tech tech partners to improve data collection, aggregation and analysis “in a way that protects the privacy of our citizens”.

“Sophisticated data analysis will allow us to make changes to the NHS, ensuring that our hardworking health and care professionals and the people that depend on them are served by a much more efficient and responsive organisation,” it added. “We will continue to update the public on our plans and progress.”