The UK government has held talks with US data analytics company Palantir in an attempt to bolster its struggling test-and-trace programme after a spreadsheet blunder left thousands of positive coronavirus cases unreported for days.
Test-and-trace officials have been in discussions with the controversial tech company about using its Foundry software to manage sensitive contact tracing data, according to people familiar with the plan.
The contract would help rationalise the vast trove of information about new virus cases around England, and potentially allow new modelling to track the spread of the disease through particular sectors or parts of the country.
The “world beating” test-and-trace programme promised by Boris Johnson in May has so far failed to provide the crucial line of defence against Covid-19 that ministers had hoped, contributing to the UK government’s decision on Saturday to announce new national lockdown measures.
The system has been undermined by early IT glitches, slow turnround times for tests, and difficulties in reaching people quickly enough to stop them infecting others. Last month, in the most embarrassing setback yet, ministers were forced to launch an inquiry after delays in referring 15,841 positive cases to the test-and-trace system because of an Excel spreadsheet reaching its maximum size and failing to automatically update.
NHS digital, the health system’s technology arm, already works with a US data analytics company, Splunk, to monitor capacity in the test-and-trace system.
The discussions with Palantir have focused on licensing its software to the test-and-trace programme, allowing public health officials to manage data more effectively. The long-term aim would be to secure far deeper insights about the way the virus is spreading, so the government can act more quickly.
However, bringing in Palantir — which has attracted criticism from civil liberties groups over its work with the US immigration service and close links to national security agencies — would provoke controversy. The company has already been contracted by the NHS to work on a Covid “data store”, which manages the distribution of PPE and other medical equipment between UK hospitals, but privacy campaigners have criticised the lack of transparency around the contracting process.
One person familiar with the discussions acknowledged that using Palantir software for the test-and-trace programme, which handles hundreds of thousands of personal case contacts per week, would be far more sensitive than the work the company is currently undertaking. They added that the data analysis group may lose out on the contract because “the optics are just not good”.
The department of health and social care did not comment when asked about government discussions with the company. Officials said that while Palantir was already contributing to a test-and-trace study that was tracking the spread of coronavirus in care homes in England, there was currently no plan to extend the company’s remit. They added that Palantir did not have access to personally identifiable data and no data left the UK.
The company went public on the New York Stock Exchange at the end of October and now has a market capitalisation of about $17bn. Palantir executives have said that a surge in new Covid-related business prompted them to accelerate plans for a stock market listing, which had originally been scheduled for next year.
Ilia Siatitsa, an expert in surveillance and technology at the campaign group Privacy International, said that she would have concerns about any private company’s involvement in test-and-trace data.
“Any public-private partnership in the health sector can have a direct and life-altering impact on the public — that’s why it’s imperative that the UK government ensures transparency and due process,” said Ms Siatitsa. But she added that the UK government’s record on transparency with Covid contracts was “poor”.
“We already have concerns about Palantir’s existing contract with the government on the Covid data store because the details are so unclear,” she said. “The company is very opaque . . . and there is very little information on how it uses the data it handles.”
The DHSC said NHS Test and Trace was committed to the “highest ethical and data governance standards”.
“Personal data is only used by people who need it to have access to it, for example to carry out contact tracing, and is subject to strict rules for information governance to meet the requirements of data protection legislation.”
Palantir declined to comment.
Additional reporting by Tim Bradshaw
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