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Addition of Palantir to list of Crown Commercial Service suppliers sparks backlash

The company will provide back office software to government departments and public sector bodies

Palantir Technologies, a controversial US software company, has officially been named as a supplier on the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) Back Office Software (BOS) Framework.

The BOS framework is a new £1.2 billion CCS contracting route for the provision of software across central government departments and all other public sector bodies, including local authorities, health, police, fire and rescue, education and devolved administrations.

It has to date been awarded to 31 suppliers, including companies such as Fujitsu, Oracle and SAP.

This will allow public sector organisations to purchase software subscriptions and licence support for back office systems directly from Palantir, in a deal that will run from 6 April 2021 to 10 October 2023, with the potential to extend for a further 18 months.

Palantir has been associated with a number of controversial deals in the past, including work with the US' Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and faced a parliament enquiry in 2018 over alleged meetings with the now-defunct data analysis firm Cambridge Analytica. It was also criticised in 2018 for picking up Project Maven, a contract with the Pentagon to develop drone technology powered by artificial intelligence, when it was dropped by Google following employee walk outs.

"This completes Palantir's relentless deployment into UK government and public institutions' operations," said Lucie Audibert, legal officer at Privacy International, a digital rights and privacy advocacy group.

"With public scrutiny of Palantir's products and services still lacking, and reports of Palantir's products having been used for human rights violations around the world, this is of great concern," she added. "And it comes just a couple weeks after the government conceded to seeking public consultation on Palantir's involvement with the NHS," she told IT Pro.

Privacy International believes Palantir has been discreetly building and extending its reach inside and across government departments without proper public scrutiny.

“We know they have contracts with various government departments, including the Cabinet Office, for development of the “Border Flow Tool”, a post-Brexit border management system,” said Audibert.

She said that this tool is meant to integrate a wide variety of government data, from the Home Office to the Department of Social Care, but the public is unaware of exactly what data that is.

“The privatisation of public responsibilities is deeply problematic when deployed without the oversight and safeguards required to ensure human rights are not quietly abused,” added Audibert.

Audibert added that public-private partnerships are dodging rules around transparency and accountability, as any disclosures and processes to which the public is entitled are limited and bypassed on account of “commercial interests confidentiality”.

Digital rights group Open Democracy has previously claimed the government was forced into a “major U-turn” on its NHS deal with Palantir. The company was awarded an “emergency” contract in March 2020 by the NHS to supposedly assist with the COVID pandemic’s handling, which Open Democracy said was “quietly” extended in December and gave it a bigger role in handling NHS data. The extension was reportedly for two years and affected other areas beyond COVID, such as Brexit.

Open Democracy launched a legal challenge in February, which it withdrew and claimed victory in April as it stated that the NHS had committed to not extending Palantir’s contract beyond COVID without consulting the public.

The NHS said the group had to drop the case as it “was apparent even to them that the NHS has always acted in accordance with its legal responsibilities”.

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