A few weeks ago, the Guardian reported that technology firms, including a right wing US data firm called Palantir, owned by rightwing billionaire Peter Thiel (a German-American venture capitalist who is also a co-founder of PayPal and was ranked No. 4 on the Forbes Midas List of 2014), have been given access to “large volumes of confidential UK patient information in a data-mining operation that is part of the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak”. The data is supposed to be used to build predictive computer models around the Covid-19 outbreak but the Guardian have seen NHS documents proposing they could use the data to run simulations to assess the impact of “targeted herd immunity”, although the faculty denies such a simulation ever took place. The NHS are saying they’ve hired the tech companies to simply help build the “Covid-19 datastore” in order to determine where there’s greater demand so they can provide extra equipment where it’s most needed and that these companies won’t be able to “control the data” and they won’t be “permitted to use or share it for their own purposes”. We’re also told that the data would be “aggregated” or “anonymised”. This doesn’t mean they don’t have access to the data, just that it will only be provided to them in a certain format and that they have limited permissions on how they are allowed to use it.
However, the Guardian also claim that the documents they’ve seen suggest that these companies will actually have access to “large volumes of data pertaining to individuals, including protected health information, Covid-19 test results, the contents of people’s calls to the NHS health advice line 111 and clinical information about those in intensive care.”
Apparently, they plan to use a “pseudo NHS number” to cross reference an individual’s details on a master patient index with an existing NHS resource that uses “social marketing data” and it’s even possible that “phone location data” could be used in the datastore to assist contact tracing.
Downing Street held a “summit” with data scientists from various private tech firms on 11 March that was chaired by prime minister’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, the man accredited with the success of the Vote Leave campaign and who himself has been linked to data harvesting firm Cambridge Analytica and Robert Mercer. Incidentally, Robert Mercer is the right wing hedge fund billionaire who funded Donald Trump’s campaign, Steve Bannon as well as Cambridge Analytica.
The Guardian also reported that Peter Thiel, is working with ‘Faculty’, an Artificial Intelligence (AI) startup run by Marc Warner, whose brother, Ben Warner was recently recruited to Downing Street by Cummings. Ben Warner used to be a principal at his brother’s firm and its understood that while he was at the firm he was working with Cummings to model the program for the Vote Leave campaign. Faculty’s lawyers deny that their getting the contract had anything to do with Cummings. Incidentally, part of the project involves integrating NHS datasets with the Palantir’s data-management platform. The same datastore being used for Microsoft, Google and Amazon products.
In another Guardian article we learned that that ‘Faculty’ had actually been given 7 government contracts over the last 18 months and that Dominic Cummings has been blogging about his excitement over the “disruptive potential of new technologies and artificial intelligence” for years. It also mentions that Ben Warner and Cummings have both been attending ‘Sage’ meetings on a regular basis (with Warner effectively acting as Cumming’s deputy), where advisors provide advice to ministers on Covid-19. This means they will likely have, at very least, listened in on discussions concerning the NHS Contact-tracing app (currently being trialed in the Isle of Wight), as well as other sensitive and privileged information.
Knowing, as we do now, about Dominic Cummings links to data harvesting firms like ‘Cambridge Analytica’ and ‘Faculty’ and how comfortable he is with engaging in electoral fraud, as well as how he happily fosters links to right wing US billionaires, many people would be forgiven for having legitimate concerns over participating in the UK’s contact-tracing program.