The U.K.’s National Health Service will start working with Palantir, the tech company co-founded by PayPal’s Peter Thiel, on a data overhaul following a deal worth up to £330 million (about $413 million).
While that could mean a massive revamp for the U.K.’s publicly-funded healthcare system, it’s sparked concerns about giving Palantir a pivotal role in the NHS.
The contract, awarded to a group led by Palantir, including Accenture, PwC and others, will involve investments over seven years to build a data platform for NHS England that help hospitals analyze data, identify trends and allocate resources within the health system, according to the NHS. This could slash wait times for patients while making the diagnosis process quicker as well.
“Better use of data is essential for the NHS to tackle waiting times, join up patient care and make the health service sustainable for the future,” NHS National Director for Transformation Dr Vin Diwakar said in a statement Tuesday. “This new tool provides a safe and secure environment to bring together data.”
What are the concerns about?
Data privacy is among the concerns flagged by critics who’ve questioned how safe the data will be in the hands of Palantir, which counts governments and intelligence agencies among its clients. People are worried that the data analytics firm can’t be trusted as it might use the information “to spy on innocent citizens.” Doctors and members of Parliament have also pointed out that Palantir could be behind one of the largest health data repositories in the world, according to the New York Times.
“It’s a staggering sum of money when there’s been insufficient scrutiny of the deal, and it beggars belief that this is the direction of travel, when other options could and should have been looked at,” Dr. David Nicholl, a spokesperson for the Doctors’ Association UK, told the NYT.
Britain-based independent non-profit Foxglove has also opposed the Palantir deal for the risks it poses to sensitive medical data.
“This is a turning point for the NHS. It’s about your right to control who sees your health record and how this country should handle one of the most precious public assets our NHS has—our collected health data,” the group said in a statement.
Blast from the past
Palantir has also had its fair share of controversies surrounding its links to former President Donald Trump. Billionaire Theil was among the prominent backers of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, donating $1.25 million to it, and also served on the former president’s transition committee at the time. Palantir’s partnership with America’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement is also believed to have helped Trump’s crackdown on immigration.
Thiel, for his part, described U.K.’s relationship with the NHS as having “Stockholm syndrome” in a speech at the Oxford Union earlier this year, according to Bloomberg. He suggested the country “rip the whole thing from the ground and start over.” Palantir, where Thiel still served as chairman, said his views didn’t reflect those of the company’s.
To be sure, this isn’t Palantir’s first rodeo with the NHS. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company’s software was used in the U.K.'s vaccine rollout for a fee of £1. That project proved invaluable to get Palantir its much higher-stakes deal with the data overhaul for the NHS.
British public healthcare also faces other challenges with staffing and funding, which has created a need for more efficient operations. In June, the NHS gave the data firm a £24 million contract to migrate its current projects to its new federated data platform.
Given the worries aired by skeptics of the deal, the NHS confirmed that only “authorized users” will be able to access the data collected, while the provider (in this case, Palantir) will not hold or have access to it.
“The safety and security of patient data is front and centre of this new system,” Health Secretary Victoria Atkins said in a statement Tuesday. “As happens currently, there will be clear rules and auditability covering who can access this data, what they can see, and what they can do.”
Palantir’s CEO Alex Karp also reinforced that the data will remain safe in the control of customers.
“This award is the culmination of 20 years of developing software that enables complex, sensitive data to be integrated in a way that protects security, respects privacy and puts the customer in full control,” he said in a statement Tuesday. ““There is no more important institution in the U.K. than the NHS and we are humbled to have now been chosen to provide that software across England to help bring down waiting lists, improve patient care and reduce health inequalities.”
A representative at NHS pointed Fortune to its Tuesday press release when asked for comment. Palantir didn’t immediately return a request for comment.