Tech

Britain gave Palantir access to sensitive medical records of Covid-19 patients in £1 deal

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Key Points
  • The U.K. Government gave Peter Thiel's Palantir access to sensitive NHS patient data. 
  • A contract published online on Friday shows that Palantir is charging the NHS just £1 for its services. 
Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal Inc.
VCG | Getty Images

Britain's National Health Service has given secretive U.S. tech firm Palantir access to private personal data of millions of British citizens, according to a contract published online.

The NHS health records that Palantir has access to can include a patient's name, age, address, health conditions, treatments and medicines, allergies, tests, scans, X-Ray results, whether a patient smokes or drinks, and hospital admission and discharge information. Any data that may make patients personally identifiable are replaced with a pseudonym or aggregated before they're shared with Palantir.

The contract, known as a data-sharing agreement, was published Friday by politics website OpenDemocracy and law firm Foxglove alongside similar contracts with Google, Microsoft, and U.K. AI start-up Faculty.

"The contracts show that the companies involved, including Faculty and Palantir, were originally granted intellectual property rights (including the creation of databases), and were allowed to train their models and profit off their unprecedented access to NHS data," openDemocracy editor-in-chief Mary Fitzgerald and Foxglove founding director and U.S. lawyer Cori Crider wrote in a blog post.

A Faculty spokesperson told CNBC the firm "asked for its contract to be amended to make clear that it will derive no commercial benefit from any software, including trained machine learning models, developed during the course of the project and that the use of the IP is under the sole control of the NHS."

Palantir did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment.

Data is a highly valuable commodity to tech giants, and personal patient data is among the most highly sought after.

The contracts show Palantir charged only £1 ($1.27) for use of its Foundry data management software while Google offered "technical, advisory and other support" for free.

All of the tech firms were enlisted by the British government to set up a national platform that would allow health officials to understand how the coronavirus is spreading across the U.K. and help them allocate resources appropriately.

Dr. Indra Joshi, director of artificial intelligence at NHS innovation arm, NHSx, said the "Covid-19 data store" has changed the way healthcare equipment and resources are coordinated.

"We're using the numbers to actually look across regions, versus quite traditionally what's happened is we've looked at localities and not seen the national picture," Joshi told the virtual CogX conference on Tuesday.

"We've gathered certain data sets to allow us to look at how it's managing beds, capacity oxygen and ventilators. We were able to say across a national perspective here are the regions where we really need to focus our attention or give more aid."

Details of the Covid-19 data store were first made public in March but the U.K. government refused to publish the all-important data-sharing agreements following a number of freedom of information requests, including one by CNBC. The contracts were finally published last week after OpenDemocracy and Foxglove threatened legal action.

Co-founded by billionaire Peter Thiel, an ally of President Donald Trump, Palantir has developed data trawling technology that intelligence agencies and governments use for surveillance and to spot suspicious patterns in public and private databases. Customers include the CIA, FBI, and the U.S. Army.

Palantir sees a huge opportunity in Europe and now has more staff in its London office than it does at its headquarters in Palo Alto, California.

Last September, Palantir was looking to raise new funding at a $26 billion plus valuation, according to Reuters. It is expecting to reach $1 billion in revenue this year.