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Has Thiel Almost Secured his Treasured Trove of NHS Data?

If a Thiel harvests a forest of data, and no one writes about it, does it still make a sound?

Well, the United Kingdom might be about to find out, as Palantir, U.S. billionaire Peter Thiel’s controversial data company, appears well-placed to land Britain’s largest-ever health data contract, the £480 million Federated Data Platform (FDP). According to Digital Health, a trusted UK trade publication, Palantir’s ‘Foundry’ is ‘highly-favoured’ by NHS England, the contracting authority. And very few seem to be noticing it.

Long the bête noire of data privacy and civil liberty activists due to its origins in national defence and intelligence, Palantir has an already-established link in with the NHS, having run some of the UK government’s pandemic data programmes. Palantir has been perceived to have performed competently enough, leading senior officials in the NHS like Tim Ferriss to position Palantir as ‘the incumbent’ for the more expansive FDP. Critics say Palantir has low-balled its COVID work with the express intention of sliding its way into the FDP’s relative data bounty.

According to the UK government’s tender document, the Federated Data Platform will “provide access to real-time data to enable decision-making to better coordinate care” across the NHS. Covering a range of data inputs – from individual patient data to vaccination rollouts, waiting lists, and medical trials, the FDP will aggregate data from multiple sources and different formats onto a single platform.

For the NHS’s many defenders, the prospect of the secretive Thiel – a prominent Trump backer and Silicon Valley titan – getting his hands on reams of NHS data is the stuff of nightmares. Or at least you would expect it to be. And yet, the FDP procurement process appears to, so far, have attracted minimal attention from either the media or politicians. Even the Labour Party, long the champion of keeping foreign hands – particularly American ones – away from the national health service, have kept their counsel close to the chest.

Even a recent comment from Thiel labeling Britain’s affection for the NHS as ‘Stockholm syndrome’ barely caused a ripple through the mainstream press. “The first step (to reforming the NHS) is to get out of the Stockholm syndrome,” Thiel told the Oxford Union debate society, adding that the health service needs ‘market mechanisms’ in order to improve its delivery. “In theory,” Thiel added, “you just rip the whole thing from the ground and start over.”

Thiel’s commentary and designs on the NHS’ data, while legitimate, are the kinds of actions that have historically sent Britons to the barricades. But short of a spiky campaign by the anti-big tech pressure group Foxglove, there is no anti-Palantir storm looming on the horizon. Unsurprisingly, Palantir appears happy to keep things on the down low, backing out of a debate with Foxglove once it became clear the media would likely be paying attention.

And while the relative silence on the FDP contract might simply be a function of the crowded information environment in which we all now live – and, let’s face it, Britain hasn’t been short of news in recent times – it’s surprising that no politician has made Thiel and Palantir their hobbyhorse, not even reliably strident and vocal MPs like David Davis. And while Davis has offered some commentary on the rumoured lawsuit against Palantir on behalf of English doctors, it has not produced an appreciable rally amongst his colleagues on the Conservative back benches. Nor has the news that Palantir is harvesting senior NHS England officials out of the public sector in a bid to improve its chances at the FDP.

All of which prompts the question: Is this contract a stitch-up?

NHS Trust sources who’ve spoken to Digital Health, the trade publication, are worried it might be. Local leaders are saying NHS England officials are encouraging them to adopt Palantir’s ‘Foundry’ solution ahead of the FDP procurement. Once established on Foundry, the critics allege, it will be harder to uproot trusts and switch them to another data-analysis provider.

Given the huge sensitivities around the NHS in the UK, Palantir bosses will be hoping Thiel, who has a tendency to attract controversy every time he speaks, takes a prolonged vow of silence in the coming months.