BREAKTHROUGH: UK government releases NHS Covid 19 data deals with big tech

Together with partners openDemocracy we successfully forced the government to release the details of deals with private companies to run the NHS Covid19 datastore.

Foxglove first demanded details of the role of private companies in the Covid19 datastore on April 3, 2020.

At first the government tried to fob us off. But in partnership with openDemocracy we made it clear that if they didn’t disclose the deals, we’d see them in court.

For a while they were claiming that the “commercial interests” of the companies involved might outweigh public interest in transparency. As more and more people signed up in support of the campaign that argument began to look less and less credible.

One area of concern which we have been raising since the beginning of this campaign was around safeguards to ensure that the companies involved weren’t able to benefit commercially from their access to NHS data.

It seems clear on the basis of the document disclosure that this concern was justified and that the original contracts did give tech firms intellectual property rights to profit from their privileged access to NHS health data. 

The contracts disclosed show that the companies involved, including Faculty and Palantir, were granted the IP rights created out of the performances of the contract (including the creation of databases), and were allowed to train their models and profit off the unprecedented access to NHS data.

Government lawyers have admitted this to us in correspondence, but have claimed that a subsequent (undisclosed) amendment to the contract with Faculty, made after Foxglove’s initial FOI request, has cured this problem. Foxglove and openDemocracy have demanded immediate release of the amended contract.

Another area we are following up is that the government has not disclosed to us its ‘Data Protection Impact Assessment,’ claiming it will publish that document on the NHS website today.

openDemocracy and Foxglove, in legal correspondence, had asked the government to specify whether this important legal compliance step had been taken before the contracts were awarded, or after. 

These are important details for us to work through. But it’s also a big breakthrough to get the government to disclose this crucial information and an encouraging sign that we may have already helped close some loopholes which could have enabled the companies to abuse their access to the NHS data.

Here’s a brief timeline of what happened to get us to this breakthrough today:

28 March – the government announced plans for a Covid19 datastore – and the involvement of a list of private companies.

3 April – we submitted requests under the Freedom of Information Act, asking the government to publish details of the Agreements. 

15 April – Information Commissioner’s Office announces a relaxation of transparency rules for the duration of the pandemic – raising fears our request may not get a response

7 May – with the government refusing to come clean, we teamed up with openDemocracy and launched a legal challenge. Thousands of people started signing up in support of the campaign.

14 May – the government stated it was weighing up the “public interest” of transparency against the “commercial interests” of the companies involved, and there would be further delays responding to our request.  

18 May – we make it clear we were gearing up to take them to court.

19 May – the number of people signed up to support the campaign passes 10,000

5 June – the government gives in and releases the information

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