‘The Default Operating System’: Palantir’s £245 Million Expansion into the UK
Max Colbert examines the history of the data and analytics giant founded by Peter Thiel as it becomes an important private player in the administration of Britain
“When the whole world is using Palantir, they can still not like us, they’ll have no choice.” Alexander Karp, CEO, Palantir Technologies.
Palantir Technologies, the US data-integration and analytics outfit in the running to become the “operating system for the NHS”, has recently been awarded a new contract from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), as per an award notice issued by the government.
The work is set to begin on 1st November and will see Palantir’s software installed as a “trade analytics solution” with the department, for which Palantir will be paid £1.5 million.
New research conducted by Byline Times and The Citizens, obtained via public notices and Freedom of Information disclosures tracking the expansion of Palantir into UK government institutions, has concluded that, at a conservative estimate, £244.5 million has been spent on installing Palantir into numerous public bodies since 2014. These efforts saw a marked increase in 2020 when it began pushing its way into the NHS under the auspices of a “short-term Covid response”.
Over £198 million (81% of the total) has been awarded to Palantir since then. If the company is successful in its bid for the £480 million Federated Data Platform (FDP) contract, described as a “must-win” deal for the company, it could end up receiving as much as £725 million from the public purse. The announcement of which company has won the FDP contract is expected as soon as next month but is still currently held up.
Palantir now employs more people in London than in Silicon Valley, with its reach across the public sector mirroring its operations in the US. It has undertaken work for the Police, Ministry of Defence, GCHQ, the NHS, the Department of Health & Social Care, Local Council Authorities, the Cabinet Office, the Department for Levelling Up, Highways England, Crown Commercial Service, and now Defra.
Additionally, some recent contracts have seen the company installed across back-end government systems, in some instances with multiple agencies accessing data under agreements held by one authority. As previously reported, a group award for building back-office software for Crown Commercial Service (CCS), including Palantir, was signed in 2021.
CCS provides software across all central government departments and public sector bodies, allowing the direct purchase of commercial services of more than 5,000 suppliers to more than 17,000 customer organisations. Lucie Audibert, law officer at Privacy International referred to the agreement at the time as completing “Palantir’s relentless deployment into UK Government and public institutions’ operations”.
Also of note is the ‘Border Flow’ monitoring contract with the Cabinet Office, ostensibly created to help ease the flow of goods and customs post-Brexit. Phase one of the project, the ‘Technical Feasibility Evaluation of the Data Connector Tool’, allowed Palantir to supply its Foundry software ‘for free’ to ‘any participating department at any time during the term’. These bodies included HMRC, the Home Office, Defra, the Department for Transport, DVLA, Highways England, and Port Health Authorities.
Should Palantir be awarded the Federated Data Platform (FDP) contract, they would be given stewardship of the UK’s health data, effectively becoming the “operating system for the NHS”, and allowing data sharing across and outside the NHS.
Under the first NHS contract, they managed the Covid-19 datastore, which they did without charge, before being given a £1.5 million extension despite the work being initially planned as a “short-term Covid-19 response”. In December 2020 the price tag shot up to £23.5 million, placing them in the health service until 2022 and allowing Palantir unprecedented access to one of the most valuable and exhaustive data sets on the planet.
As legal organisation Foxglove’s director Cori Crider explained after the agreement was announced: “The datastore is the largest pool of patient data in history. It’s one thing to set it up on an emergency basis, it’s a different kettle of fish to give a tech firm like Palantir a permanent role in NHS infrastructure”.
The NHS deals came after Palantir lobbied health officials dating back as far as 2019, months before the pandemic began. Also, a recent investigation by Bloomberg revealed Palantir’s plans to “buy their way in” to the NHS by purchasing smaller firms who already had an ongoing relationship with the health service.
Emails sent by Palantir regional head Louis Mosley revealed an intention to “take a lot of ground and take down a lot of political resistance” by “hoovering up” smaller businesses. Responding to the allegations, a Palantir spokesperson said: “Some of the language used in a private email between client and advisor in September 2021 is regrettable. It is not an accurate characterisation of our relationship with the NHS and should not be taken out of context.”
The company has vigorously pursued contracts across the public sector and seems to have been given favourable treatment from the government on more than one occasion. A recent report from the National Audit Office (NAO) indicates that Palantir’s work for the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) was awarded against public procurement principles after the company gained a toehold in the department through its work on the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme.
As revealed by The Citizens, Palantir undertook the work, building a “humanitarian relief case management system”, with no initial charge. As with the NHS contracts, in September 2022 a further contract was signed, this time with a ballooning cost of £4.5 million, which was awarded “without any competitive process”.
The report noted that "DLUHC officials acknowledged that the department should plan to move away from Palantir given the cost of the contract, which was perceived to be higher than other possible solutions". Analysis of government digital spend data indicates that the department has spent as much as £6 million on Palantir to date.
A spokesperson for Palantir told Byline Supplement: “The route to procurement was rightly a Government decision but we make no apology for offering immediate support for free in order to help safely resettle Ukrainians whose lives had been put at risk by Russia’s sudden illegal invasion.”
“We’re proud to support the UK Government in a range of ways, whether that’s supporting the safe resettlement of Ukrainian refugees, enabling Royal Navy vessels to spend longer at sea, or helping the NHS to reduce waiting lists, deliver vital treatment sooner to patients and speed up cancer diagnosis.”
“As a software company, we don’t collect or monetise customers’ data – we simply provide tools that help them organise and understand their own information.”
Palantir is heavily tipped to be the favourite for the FDP award and has been poaching NHS senior staff in the runup to the announcement. The company has now been given a further £25 million contract to transition the work it’s been doing to the new data platform when it is fully established. But the company's reputation may yet prove an impediment to them being entrusted with UK health data…
Surveillance Tech and Civil Liberties
As Palantir rose to prominence in the wake of the war on terror, honing its intelligence-gathering and crime-predicting software in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was simultaneously turning its hand to domestic intelligence-gathering operations. With perhaps its most controversial work globally, the company was instrumental in building the tools used by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) border authorities to facilitate immigration raids, building and maintaining the Investigative Case Management (ICM) system.
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