Gov 'forced into major U-turn' on NHS deal with Palantir, privacy group claims

NHS app
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The UK government has made a "major U-turn" after facing a lawsuit from Open Democracy over a £23 million NHS data contract awarded to controversial US firm Palantir.

Open Democracy claimed that the government "finally caved" in the face of the lawsuit even though the case was withdrawn, in a blog post on Tuesday, adding that the NHS has now committed to not extending Palantir’s contract beyond COVID without consulting the public.

It has also agreed to engage the public, via patient juries, about whether firms like Palantir are appropriate for a long-term role in the NHS at all.

“It’s a major U-turn at a critical moment. The NHS, with its unique trove of structured health data, is powerfully attractive to tech corporations. Palantir and other US tech firms clearly stand to profit from managing or accessing this asset, estimated to be worth £10bn a year,” wrote Mary Fitzgerald, Open Democracy’s editor in chief and Cori Crider, founding director of FoxGlove.

“The NHS datastore is the largest pool of private health data in NHS history, and that raises questions too important to be settled in secret deals. Should it survive the pandemic? On what terms? Should Palantir manage it, or are there more trustworthy alternatives?”

Open Democracy stated its mission is not complete. It is still seeking full transparency on the Palantir deal, wants to know what data is being fed into Palantir’s datastore, and is also keen to ensure that the public consultation the government has promised is far-reaching, not just a “box-ticking exercise”.

Fitzgerald and Crider also wrote: “We also need to fully understand and debate Matt Hancock’s long-term plans for our NHS. Our case was launched amid a major proposed shake-up of laws governing the NHS and its patient data.

"Proposals in the government’s recent white paper for health and social care would centralise NHS control under Matt Hancock, and could prepare the ground for larger slices of the NHS – including its £10bn/year health data assets – to be contracted to private tech firms.”

However, in a statement provided to IT Pro, an NHS spokesperson disputed Open Democracy's claims and said the group "have had to drop their court case unilaterally as it was apparent even to them that the NHS has always acted in accordance with its legal responsibilities.

"They, therefore, stood no chance of succeeding in their completely spurious claim. It would be more honest if they actually came clean with their crowdfunders that far from 'winning' this case they had no choice but to drop it when they realised they hadn’t a leg to stand on," the spokesperson added.

Palantir was awarded an “emergency” contract in March 2020 by the NHS to supposedly assist in handling the COVID pandemic. However, openDemocracy accused the government of “quietly” giving the company a contract extension in December and a bigger role in handling NHS data. The extension was for two years and affected other areas beyond COVID, such as Brexit and more, according to the organisation.

Open Democracy stipulates that the government has a duty to consult the public and users of the NHS before signing major NHS contracts with big tech, which led to the organisation launching the legal challenge in February.

This article originally stated that Open Democracy had won a lawsuit against the NHS. This was incorrect and the article has been updated to reflect this.

Zach Marzouk

Zach Marzouk is a former ITPro, CloudPro, and ChannelPro staff writer, covering topics like security, privacy, worker rights, and startups, primarily in the Asia Pacific and the US regions. Zach joined ITPro in 2017 where he was introduced to the world of B2B technology as a junior staff writer, before he returned to Argentina in 2018, working in communications and as a copywriter. In 2021, he made his way back to ITPro as a staff writer during the pandemic, before joining the world of freelance in 2022.