Palantir, the all-seeing US tech company, could soon have the data of millions of NHS patients. My response? Yikes! | Arwa Mahdawi
Peter Thiel has a terrible case of RBF – reclusive billionaire face. I’m not being deliberately mean-spirited, just stating the indisputable fact that the tech entrepreneur, a co-founder of PayPal, doesn’t exactly give off feel-good vibes. There is a reason why pretty much every mention of Thiel tends to be peppered with adjectives such as “secretive”, “distant” and “haughty”. He has cultivated an air of malevolent mystique. It’s all too easy to imagine him sitting in a futuristic panopticon, torturing kittens and plotting how to overthrow democracy.
It’s all too easy to imagine that scenario because (apart from the torturing kittens part, obviously), that is basically how the 54-year-old billionaire already spends his days. Thiel was famously one of Donald Trump’s biggest donors in 2016; this year, he is one of the biggest individual donors to Republican politics. While it is hardly unusual for a billionaire to throw money at conservative politicians, Thiel is notable for expressing disdain for democracy, and funding far-right candidates who have peddled Trump’s dangerous lie that the election was stolen from him. As the New York Times warned in a recent profile: “Thiel’s wealth could accelerate the shift of views once considered fringe to the mainstream – while making him a new power broker on the right.”
When he isn’t pumping money into far-right politicians, Thiel is busy accelerating the surveillance state. In 2004, the internet entrepreneur founded a data-analytics company called Palantir Technologies (after the “seeing stones” used in The Lord of the Rings), which has been backed by the venture capital arm of the CIA. What dark magic Palantir does with data is a bit of a mystery but it has its fingers in a lot of pies: it has worked with F1 racing, sold technology to the military, partnered with Space Force and developed predictive policing systems. And while no one is entirely sure about the extent of everything Palantir does, the general consensus seems to be that it has access to a huge amount of data. As one Bloomberg headline put it: “Palantir knows everything about you.”
Soon it might know even more. The Financial Times recently reported that Palantir is “gearing up” to become the underlying data operating system for the NHS. In recent months it has poached two top executives from the NHS, including the former head of artificial intelligence, and it is angling to get a five-year, £360m contract to manage the personal health data of millions of patients. There are worries that the company will then entrench itself further into the health system. “Once Palantir is in, how are you going to remove them?” one source with knowledge of the matter told the FT.
How worried should we be about all this? Well, according to one school of thought, consternation about the potential partnership is misplaced. There is a line of argument that it is just a dull IT deal that people are getting worked up over because they don’t like the fact that Thiel gave a bunch of money to Trump. And to be fair, even if you think Thiel is a creepy dude with creepy beliefs, it is important to note that he is not the only guy in charge of Palantir: the company was co-founded in 2003 by Alex Karp, who is still the CEO; he voted for Hillary Clinton and has described himself as a progressive (although, considering his affinity for the military, he certainly has a different view of progress than I do).
My school of thought, meanwhile, is best summarised as: yikes. Anyone who has had any experience of the abysmal US healthcare system should be leery of private American companies worming their way into the NHS. Particularly when the current UK government would privatise its own grandmother if the price was right. I don’t know exactly what Palantir wants with the NHS but I do know it’s worth keeping an eye on it. It’s certainly keeping an eye on you.
December 24, 2022 at 11:38 pm
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