Palantir wants your medical records

The CIA-linked data firm is gobbling up healthcare data around the world 

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Foxglove, an international collective of privacy-focused lawyers, launched an activist campaign last week targeting one of the largest handovers of health data to a private company in history.

It all started in March 2020 as the British government rushed out a single-pound data contract to U.S. tech giants to provide a “single source of truth” for the pandemic. One such recipient of the NHS COVID-19 Data Store deal: CIA-connected firm Palantir, co-founded by right-wing billionaire Peter Thiel.

At the outset, the British government quieted down privacy campaigners by claiming the contract would be short-term. That was not true. In December, Palantir received a two-year, $34 million extension to manage Britons’ health data using its Foundry software platform -- although the British government redacted exactly what data, precisely, the firm would process.

Enter Foxglove, a collective of lawyers and privacy advocates who allege the contract is a vehicle for the British government to hand over people’s data to private companies without oversight. Together with 50 other organizations, they have launched the “No Palantir in Our NHS” campaign.

“Palantir has no track record in healthcare, but has identified health data services as a target market,” Foxglove stated. “The NHS, with its global reputation, taxpayer funding, and unusually comprehensive datasets, was identified as a particularly lucrative target and Palantir has been wooing NHS bosses over cocktails for some time.”

Palantir, founded in 2003, has used that reputation to build one of the largest personal data collections in the world, propelling its $45 billion valuation. The pandemic has offered an historic opportunity to expand into patient data. Louis Mosley, Palantir’s head of U.K. operations and eldest grandson of 1930s British fascist leader Oswald Mosley, asserted last year the company’s software is designed to guard against government overreach of privacy. 

“Much of the software we’ve built is to prove those kinds of protections,” Mosley said.

The secretive data-mining juggernaut has a history of working with western governments in the fields of defense and intelligence. But working mostly in the opaque world of soldiers, spies and cops comes with a downside. Palantir is unprofitable on a GAAP basis, widening to a $1.2 billion loss in 2020, but tells investors it expects revenue to grow at a 30% annual rate through 2025. The company beat Wall Street estimates in Q1 this year with 49% revenue growth.

Healthcare patient data is one of the most potentially lucrative sources for growth. This is despite U.S. officials’ complaints that Palantir’s software to handle their own pandemic response through the Department of Health and Human Services has been inaccurate. Like the contract with NHS, the HHS awarded Palantir a $24.9 million deal last May to rush its software into service. 

But the private healthcare sector is where the real money is, and Palantir is making aggressive moves in the sector. The company recently secured a stake in British health data firm Babylon as part of a $4.2 billion merger with blank-check company Alkuri Global. Babylon provides healthcare services to 24 million patients via a mobile app connecting patients directly to their NHS physicians. This technically makes Babylon the largest primary care “practice” in the United Kingdom. Babylon is expanding further in the United States, where the firm expects 80% of its revenue this year.

“We wanted to take the day-to-day biometrics of the human body and be able to construct a more pre-emptive image, by building a digital twin of each of us,” Babylon founder Ali Parsa told the Financial Times. Now Palantir owns a piece of each of these twins. 

A few weeks before that, Palantir closed two more critical health data deals: a $30 million SPAC play for pharmaceutical designer Roivant Sciences, and a $20 million, five-year contract with New Jersey biotech firm Celularity to “work with enormous data sets and help us begin to decipher what’s important … the biological activity in patients,” Celularity CEO Robert Hariri told Yahoo Finance.

Palantir could get the motherlode of British health data starting in September, when every person registered with an NHS general practitioner will have their information -- including physical, sexual and mental health records -- shared with third parties unless they opt out. 

The NHS has not disclosed whether Palantir would be involved, only firms with a “legal and legitimate need to use” the data, but the program matches the description of Palantir’s work with Babylon. Fifty-five million NHS recipients have a general practitioner.

This data will, of course, be worth a fortune if Palantir can cast its gaze on it, and the British government has said little about the terms of the access, or what safeguards are in place to protect it all. “The data is ‘pseudonymous,’ but this is quite different from anonymous,” Foxglove stated. “It means peoples’ identities will be disguised but could later be re-identified.”

Palantir is one of the companies best situated to use complex data tools to do just this sort of re-identification. This means that the only thing protecting the privacy of millions of patients around the world is the integrity of a CIA-founded military contractor with Oswald Mosley’s grandkid on the payroll. 

If the company decides that it has other priorities for this data in line with its political objectives, none of these families have any real protection whatsoever. 

As Foxglove’s activists put it: “Palantir is the last company we want anywhere near the NHS.”

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