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Government mulls tech giants’ “commercial interests” before releasing NHS data deals

The British government is facing mounting pressure to disclose the terms of secret data sharing deals between NHS England and Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Peter Thiel’s Palantir and the London AI company Faculty.

More than 8,000 people have signed a petition calling on the government to publish the agreements, while digital rights experts have written to the health secretary Matt Hancock seeking further answers.

But in response to a freedom of information (FoI) request submitted last month, the Department of Health and Social Care has now said it needs another 20 working days to decide whether to release the contracts, insisting it must weigh up the tech firms’ “commercial interests”. The department has also been asked to provide the data protection impact assessments carried out for the project.

The response elicited a furious reaction from the digital rights experts who submitted the request, in an effort to shed more light on the project. The Covid-19 data store, which draws on up to 1,000 data points a day, including anonymised health information, has been designed to predict demand on the health service at both a local and nation level.

“The idea that Amazon or Palantir’s ‘commercial interests’ might outweigh the public’s right to know what’s going on with this data deal is, frankly, crazy,” Cori Crider, a lawyer and the founder of digital rights startup Foxglove, told NS Tech.

Mary Fitzgerald, the editor of openDemocracy, which is threatening to sue for disclosure of the documents, added: “It seems the government is trying to evade scrutiny over this unprecedented and highly controversial deal.

“The pandemic cannot be an excuse for delaying or ducking accountability; millions of us rely on the NHS and we deserve immediate answers about who holds our personal information, what they’re doing with it, and whether our rights are being protected”.

The project is being primarily managed by the health service’s digital transformation arm NHSX, Palantir and Faculty. As NS Tech reported last month, Palantir, which is focused on the data engineering side of the project, has offered up 45 engineers at an estimated cost of £88,000 a week, in return for just a £1 fee.

One source close to the project described the system as the “best planning tool hospitals have ever had”. There is speculation that the project, and Palantir’s role within it, will live on after the crisis comes to an end.

But while even the project’s critics acknowledge that it may aid the NHS’s response, concerns have been raised about the lack of transparency surrounding it. It emerged last month, for example, that the Palantir deal did not go to competitive tender.

Founded by Thiel in 2003, the company has provided the technology to support a number of controversial public sector contracts in the US, from predictive policing to migrant surveillance. It was initially partially funded by the Central Intelligence Agency.

Faculty, which analyses the data that Palantir brings together, has also come under the spotlight in recent weeks. Its chief executive’s brother, Ben Warner, reportedly worked with Dominic Cummings on the Vote Leave campaign and now serves as a data science adviser to Downing Street. Last month, he was one of the political advisers revealed by the Guardian to have attended the government’s SAGE meetings.

An open letter signed by some of the UK’s most high profile digital rights experts, sent to Matt Hancock and published on Monday (18 May) calls on the government to disclose more information about the terms of the contracts. “We understand the need for better health information, but maintain that the public should be consulted throughout the development of the datastore and be able to obtain adequate information about the data sharing agreements in place,” the letter states.

A government spokesperson told NS Tech: “All those helping the NHS are subject to the same strict rules for data protection as the NHS – they do not control the data and are not permitted to use or share it for their own purposes. At the end of the public health emergency any work produced will either be deleted or returned to the NHS.

“As part of an unprecedented response to this global pandemic we have drawn on the expertise and resources of a number of public and private sector partners to support our NHS and social care sector.”