Palantir Technologies had a secret plan to deepen its relationship with the UK’s National Health Service without public scrutiny. The plan, which was revealed in documents obtained by The Guardian, would have seen the company provide data analysis and software to the NHS without a competitive tendering process.The plan was eventually scrapped after the Guardian’s revelations sparked a public outcry.
The US data-analytics company Palantir is aiming to buy up smaller rivals that already have an existing relationship with the NHS, according to emails and strategy documents seen by Bloomberg. This approach would hopefully allow Palantir to avoid further scrutiny in working with one of the largest depositories of heath data.
In an email entitled "Buying our way in...!" sent in September 2021, Palantir's regional head Louis Mosley outlined the company's strategy of "hoovering up" small businesses serving the NHS in order to "take a lot of ground and take down a lot of political resistance."
The NHS is one of the world's largest employers, with a budget of nearly £190 billion ($208 billion). It has become a key client for Palantir, hiring the US tech firm to help with its Covid-19 response. Palantir is hoping to win a £360 million contract from the NHS that is coming up for tender.
Palantir has so far been unsuccessful in buying up NHS suppliers, but documents seen by Bloomberg show that the company is hoping to deepen its business with the NHS, both by making key hires from the NHS and via potential acquisitions.
Palantir has been criticized by civil liberties groups in the US and UK for providing tools to government agencies that enable broad surveillance of populations. Lawmakers in the UK have voiced concern over Palantir’s technology.
Palantir is committed to helping the most important institutions solve their biggest challenges, and there is no institution more important in the UK than the NHS. Palantir has already enabled the NHS to improve millions of people’s lives, and we want to do more of this. We make no apology for that.
The spokesman said that some of the language in Mosley's email was regrettable and not an accurate portrayal of the company's relationship with the NHS.
Palantir's spokesman said that the firm's software is trusted by some of the world's most respected intelligence and defense agencies to protect sensitive data. They said the company was winning NHS business on merit and that its software was world-class and the result of several billion pounds of investment. Palantir's website states that the company "was founded on the conviction that it's essential to preserve fundamental principles of privacy and civil liberties while using data."
An NHS England spokesman has said that the upcoming contract for the NHS' IT systems will be awarded through a strict and transparent process, in order to ensure that data remains secure. 86 suppliers have attended pre-market engagement events so far.
Palantir was founded in 2003 by Peter Thiel, a member of Facebook's board of directors. The company quickly gained the attention and financial backing of In-Q-Tel, the venture investing arm of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. Palantir counted the CIA among its first customers and developed a reputation for secrecy early on.
According to Mosley, suitable UK takeover targets are those with credible leadership, annual revenue of between £5 million and £50 million, and already selling software services to the NHS. He wrote that founders would be offered a "very generous buyout schedule (say 10x, especially if all stock)."
Palantir is offering compensation to founders for their equity stake if they shift all of their services into Palantir's main data handling platform, Foundry. Foundry is designed to organize data from disparate sources, making it a valuable asset for any business. Palantir's offer is a way to incentivize founders to use Foundry as their primary data platform, ensuring that Palantir remains the go-to source for data management.
Mosley wrote that it is unlikely that anyone else will offer the same generous terms as they would, and that they may be the only real exit option for the company.
Foundry has been used by the NHS to track the take-up of vaccines and manage the backlog of patients waiting for elective surgeries. Since 2020, Palantir has secured more than £37 million in contracts with the NHS and the Department of Health and Social Care, according to public spending tracker AdviceCloud.
In January, Canadian health-tech firm VitalHub Corp announced that it had acquired Beautiful Information, an NHS-private partnership that generates real-time information for hospitals, for £1.55 million. Palantir had been seeking to acquire Beautiful Information shortly before Mosley emailed his plan, but lost out to VitalHub.
Mosley said that he is interested in acquiring more companies like Beautiful Information, and that he has the financial resources to do so.
A company spokesman said that it is not unusual for companies to explore investments or acquisitions. He said that the company had been approached with "two such opportunities" in 2021, but that it had declined to proceed with either of them. He said that the company had not acquired any companies that work with the NHS.
Sensyne and Beautiful Information were not available for comment when reached by reporters.
Palantir was one of several investors that contributed $230 million to support Babylon Holdings Ltd. going public in 2021. This is part of a longer-term partnership between the two companies that has seen Babylon migrate some of its data to Palantir's Foundry platform.
Palantir's approach was not limited to deals and takeovers, according to messages seen by Bloomberg. The company also urged industry lobby group TechUK to encourage government agencies to buy commercial off-the-shelf products, such as Foundry, instead of building their own bespoke tools.
A representative from TechUK was not available for comment.
Palantir has hired Global Counsel, a strategic advisory firm co-founded by Peter Mandelson, to help lobby the UK government. The firm also recently hired Indra Joshi and Harjeet Dhaliwal, key figures from the NHS.
A spokesperson for Global Counsel said in an emailed statement that the company's work for Palantir is a matter of public record. The spokesperson said that the relevant declarations to statutory registers and the NHS in relation to this work have been made.
Critics have challenged the NHS’s lack of transparency over hastily executed deals during the pandemic. In March 2020, Palantir was paid a nominal £1 fee to run a Covid-19 data store to help the NHS allocate resources more efficiently. However, according to two senior NHS officials who were not authorized to speak to the media, Palantir has used the work as a case study in pitches for other NHS contracts.
In December 2020, Palantir was granted a new contract to continue its work on a data store for the NHS, in a deal worth £23.5 million. This was not subject to a public tender process. Prior to that, the company had spent months trying to win over NHS leaders, according to a report from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in February 2021.
Palantir declined to comment, but NHS England said in a statement that it had "always acted in accordance with its legal responsibilities."
Palantir has come under fire from lawmakers for its deepening relationship with the NHS, despite hiring Global Counsel.
Patient trust is vital to our NHS, so we must be careful about who we allow to have access to our data. Foreign tech companies such as Palantir have a history of supporting mass surveillance, assisting in drone strikes, immigration raids and predictive policing. We cannot allow them to have access to our NHS data.
OpenDemocracy, an independent media company, sued the UK government with the support of legal nonprofit Foxglove for awarding business to Palantir without a public tender process. The government agreed not to extend the contract beyond Covid without a public consultation. The push-back continued in Sept. 2021, when the Department of Health and Social Care ended another data deal with Palantir, Bloomberg reported.
Cori Crider, founding director of Foxglove, said that there are legitimate concerns about whether Palantir is providing the NHS with value for money, or if officials are just being drawn in by the appeal of a shiny new dashboard.
No decision has been made yet on who will win the £360 million NHS tender. There are several major consulting firms and large US tech companies bidding for the contract.
"Foundry is a very competent piece of software," said Phil Booth, coordinator of British data-privacy campaign organization medConfidential. He went on to say that he does not have any concerns about unauthorized people accessing patient data, as this would be "suicidal" for Foundry.
However, he said that Palantir's history as a "Peter Thiel-backed, CIA-initiated company" could deter patients from sharing their data. He suggested that instead of using Palantir, we should build our own open-source software.
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