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Revealed: Palantir commits 45 engineers to NHS coronavirus data project, earns £1

Palantir has committed 45 engineers to a government data project designed to predict surges in NHS demand during the coronavirus crisis, NS Tech can reveal.

The pledge is likely to cost the controversial data analysis firm around £88,000 a week in salaries alone, according to our analysis of wage estimates.

However, Palantir, which has committed nearly 10 per cent of its UK workforce to the project, is earning just £1 for the work, a source close to the project told NS Tech.

The revelations are likely to prompt speculation about the company’s expectations of securing further work with the health service at the end of the project, and the lucrative revenue stream it could generate for the company.

Co-founded by the early Facebook investor and Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel in 2003, Palantir has been considering how its software could support the NHS for at least two years. But the data project, first reported by the BBC last month, represents its first contract with the health service.

The news of Palantir’s involvement in developing the Covid-19 Datastore, alongside Faculty, Amazon, Google and Microsoft, attracted criticism from privacy advocates when it leaked last month. But Matthew Gould, the chief executive of the health service’s transformation arm NHSX, has defended the work.

“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,” Gould wrote in a blogpost last month. “We believe that the support provided by these partners will enable the Government to respond more effectively to the crisis.”

Palantir has a reputation for carrying out controversial work for the US government and various federal and local agencies, including the FBI, CIA and most contentiously, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has reportedly used Palantir’s software to surveil migrants before tracking them down and separating them from their families at the Mexico border. Palantir CEO Alex Karp, who claims to have a progressive political outlook, has described the Trump administration’s immigration policies as “rigorous”.

After ICE confirmed last summer that it had renewed its contract with Palantir, Karp sought to defend its government work. “We at Palantir have a view that in societies where there is a functioning democracy—meaning there are checks and balances enforced by a functioning judiciary—we will provide the software and will continue to provide the software,” he told the news agency Bloomberg.

While privacy activists are particularly concerned about Palantir’s work with the NHS, its defenders note that if intelligence agencies trust it to handle their data, it may be well prepared to handle medical records, one of the most sensitive forms of personal data.

However, critics are also concerned about the company’s alleged record for vendor lock-in. Some former clients have reportedly found it difficult to extract themselves from Palantir contracts without losing access to the analysis the firm’s software provided.

While the data will either be destroyed or returned to the health service at the end of the crisis, NHSX has said that it intends to learn from its work with the tech sector. “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,” Gould said. “We will continue to update the public on our plans and progress.”