Why is the UK government hiding its NHS data deals with private companies?

Tagged with: Covid-19 Datastore, Palantir

Foxglove has teamed up with global journalism site openDemocracy to launch a new legal challenge. We’re taking action to protect the NHS’s vast stores of health data from exploitation at the hands of private companies.

The NHS has a huge amount of data – including medical data about every single one of us in the UK. It’s very valuable data. On one recent estimate, from accountancy firm Ernst & Young, it’s worth almost £10billion per year.

Used properly, this data could help the NHS marshal its resources and improve care. It also has the potential to raise valuable income, which could be ploughed back into the NHS to improve it for everyone.

However, without the right safeguards, very private and personal medical information could end up in the wrong hands. And private companies could take advantage of it to develop profitable new products – without the NHS, or taxpayers, getting any return.

In late March, the NHS announced that it was working with a number of private companies to develop a “Covid-19 datastore”.

Most of us will have heard of some of the companies involved: Google, Amazon, Microsoft. They’re companies with expertise and technology, for sure – but they also have a history of not being willing to pay their fair share of tax to fund the NHS. They also don’t have the greatest of reputations when it comes to respecting our privacy.

Some of the other companies involved are less well known but even more worrying.

Palantir is a US security and data-mining firm which cut its teeth helping the CIA in Iraq and Afghanistan. More recently, it has become notorious for the links between its owner, Peter Thiel, and Donald Trump – including providing support for Trump’s aggressive deportation policies towards immigrants.

Palantir is reported to be charging only £1 for its work on this project – raising the question, as a profit-driven company, of how it expects to actually make a financial return.

Another lesser-known company is Faculty AI. They made a name for themselves doing data work for the Vote Leave campaign. They’ve got strong links to Boris Johnson’s government – they are run by Marc Warner, whose brother Ben Warner works in Downing Street for Dominic Cummings. Another Conservative minister is a major shareholder. They’ve landed seven different government contracts in the past 18 months.

Back in early April, Foxglove submitted requests under the Freedom of Information Act asking the government to share details of the agreements it had reached with these companies.

We hoped the government would set out how they’d protected our private, patient data, and how they’d made sure these private companies weren’t going to exploit the pandemic to rip off the NHS. We also teamed up with a number of other organisations to write directly to Palantir requesting more information about their involvement.

Neither of these approaches got us very far. Palantir responded but skirted the key issues. And the government failed to publish any of the information we requested within the timeframe set out in the Freedom of Information act. So, with these avenues exhausted, we’ve teamed up with journalism platform openDemocracy to gear up for legal action.

We all want the NHS to succeed in tackling coronavirus. The datastore and other digital technology could play an important role.

But for these systems to work, the public needs to be able to trust them. If these agreements were published, they’d either show us that all the right safeguards were in place – or we’d be able to highlight the problems and get them fixed. B

Instead the government has chosen to shroud these deals with private companies in secrecy. We simply can’t know if they’re a good deal for the NHS—or for patients.

We’re really excited to be working with openDemocracy on this. They’re brave, award-winning independent journalists with a track record of uncovering the truth and a long history of investigating private sector involvement in the NHS. Foxglove runs all of its cases in partnership and we couldn’t be more pleased with this team-up.

The government is due to respond to our pre-action letter by the end of today so we expect to be publishing further updates about this case shortly.