Palantir Technologies is a public American company that specializes in big data analytics. Headquartered in Denver, Colorado, it was founded by Peter Thiel, Nathan Gettings, Joe Lonsdale, Stephen Cohen, and Alex Karp in 2003.
The company is known for projects in the area of defence and counter-terrorism, with its projects used by offices in the United States Intelligence Community (USIC) and United States Department of Defense. Palantir's original clients were federal agencies of the USIC. It has since expanded its customer base to serve state and local governments, as well as private companies in the financial and healthcare industries. In the UK, Palantir has been focused on working within the NHS on projects.
Last updated: January 2024
Palantir was co-founded in 2003 by Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and early investor in Facebook. Some initial funding came from In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Palantir’s software programs process vast amounts of data, enabling clients to identify previously undetectable patterns and connections or, as the company puts it, convert “massive amounts of information into knowledge that reflects their world”.
The company has big contracts within the US public sector. Its most controversial contracts in recent years have been with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE). It works with an ICE subdivision called Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), which focuses on tackling drug smuggling, money laundering and human trafficking. Other US government clients include the tax-collecting Internal Revenue Service, the US financial watchdog and the Department for Health and Human Services. It also has a contract with the US army to modernise its battlefield intelligence system and is reportedly working with the Pentagon on Project Maven, its artificial intelligence programme.
Palantir helps several western governments combat terrorism and governments account for more than half of its revenue, with clients including the UK Ministry of Defence.
Thiel is a libertarian billionaire who has used his fortune to support rightwing candidates in the US, including Trump’s successful bid for the presidency in 2016.
The head of Palantir’s London office is Louis Mosley, grandson of Oswald Mosley and nephew of the late former president of Formula One’s governing body, Max Mosley, who became a privacy campaigner later in life.
Palantir has reported full year 2022 results. Total revenue grew 24% year-over-year to $1.91 billion, with US revenue up 32% year-over-year to $1.16 billion. Commercial revenue grew 29% year-over-year to $834 million, with US commercial revenue up 67% year-over-year to $335 million. Revenue from government contracts revenue grew 19% year-over-year to $1.07 billion, with US government revenue grew 22% year-over-year to $826 million. The company reported a loss from operations of $161 million.
In November 2023, as was widely predicted, NHS England awarded Palantir and four partners including Accenture a five-year contract to set up and operate the “federated data platform” (FDP). The contract was published in late December 2023, but was heavily redacted, with 200 pages completely blacked-out, particularly in sections related to personal data protection and service recipients. This raised once again concerns over transparency and data protection with critics arguing that the move - in both redactions and timing - does not align with NHS England's commitment to learning from transparency issues.
In January 2024, however, the Good Law Project (GLP) reported that NHS England is to investigate whether Palantir violated the terms of its contract to run the FDP, after GLP discovered that Palantir had covertly launched an influencer campaign which targeted GLP. The campaign run by PR company Topham Guerin and marketing agency, Disrupt, involved approaching social media influencers to ask them what they would like to be paid to take part in a campaign to “raise awareness about Palantir’s contract with the NHS”. Palantir was not to be mentioned by the influencers and they would be sent tweets and videos to post.
The campaign was supposedly to “clear up misinformation" in the UK media. If influencers expressed an interest in the campaign they were sent the briefing document – “TG x Palantir”. The briefing document targets GLP specifically, and describes it as “a not-for-profit campaign organisation” who are “extremely critical of the contract being awarded to Palantir”.
The contract notice for the platform states that the data platform will be an “essential enabler to transformational improvements” across the NHS and will be an “ecosystem of technologies and services”. The contract notice was published in January 2023 and companies had until 9 February 2023 to submit bids.
In November 2022, NHS England split the £400mn plus data contract into four parts: provision of the platform; privacy enhancing technology; an app store-style marketplace and training; implementation and deployment of the tech. The provision of the platform part of the contract is the most valuable, worth £360mn over five years with the possibility of two 12-month extensions, worth an extra £120mn. Ming Tang, chief data and analytics officer at NHS England, told the FT that the NHS had split up the procurement to “safeguard” the service. She told the FT that "Whoever processes the platform cannot own the privacy enhancing technology so the key transfer [of data] is safe.”
Suppliers learned they would be barred from bidding for all parts of the project in August 2022, according to a document seen by the FT. It is unclear whether splitting up the contract was intended to limit Palantir's role or based on advice from procurement and data security experts. In August 2023, openDemocracy saw leaked emails from 2020 where more than one NHS employee referred to Palantir as if it had already won the contract and was the recipient of the funding.
In March 2023 lawyers acting on behalf of The Doctors’ Association UK, National Pensioners’ Convention, and Just Treatment threatened legal action over NHS England’s procurement of the federated data platform, as questions about patient consultation and compliance with data protection law remain unanswered.
Soon after the contract was awarded, Foxglove, the legal company involved, said it has sent a letter to the Government saying it urgently needs to explain how the FDP will comply with the law, and if it refuses it will go to court.
Palantir's association with the NHS began in March 2020 when it was contracted by the NHS to help develop the NHS Covid-19 Data Store for a fee of £1. The aim of the Data Store was to help manage Covid-19 data and shape the government’s response to the virus.
The contract was due to expire in June 2020 but was extended for four months at a cost of £1million.
Then in December 2020, it was revealed that Palantir had been awarded a £23million contract to continue its work on the NHS Covid-19 Data Store. It commenced on 12 December and was due to run until December 2022.
In January 2023, NHS England extended its contract with Palantir for the system the company built at the height of the pandemic to give it time to resolve the twice-delayed procurement of a data platform to support health service reorganisation and tackle the massive care backlog.
This extension of the contract was despite the UK government promise in March 2021 not to expand the roles of Palantir's NHS England database without public consultation under threat of a judicial review from the news website openDemocracy, backed by Foxglove.
In a contract notice NHS England said the contract would be extended until September 2023 in a deal worth £11.5 million.
There are a large number of concerns surrounding Palantir. The company received funding from the CIA in its early days with its primary focus on developing a system that would gather together data collected by a wide range of spy agencies, including from human intelligence, cell-phone calls, travel records and financial transactions, to help identify and stop terrorists planning attacks on the USA.
Over the years, the company has worked with some of the government’s most secretive agencies, including the CIA, the NSA, and the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command.
In 2020 as Palantir was about to go public, The Intelligencer, a US publication, noted that Palantir’s public offering was based "on the company’s sales pitch that its software represents the ultimate tool of surveillance. Named after the “Seeing Stones” in the book The Lord of the Rings, Palantir is designed to ingest the mountains of data collected by soldiers and spies and police — fingerprints, signals intelligence, bank records, tips from confidential informants — and enable users to spot hidden relationships, uncover criminal and terrorist networks, and even anticipate future attacks."
The article noted that founders Peter Thiel and Alex Karp had "positioned Palantir as a pro-military arm of Silicon Valley, a culture dominated by tech gurus who view their work as paving the way for a global utopia."
The article also reported that The Intelligencer journalist had spoken to more than a dozen former military and intelligence officials that "expressed concerns about the firm’s penchant for exaggeration, its apparent flouting of federal rules designed to ensure fair competition, and its true worth."
The company has a number of controversial contracts within the defence and immigration sector. One of its most controversial contracts in recent years have been with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE). It works with an ICE subdivision called Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). The company has denied it was involved with ICE, but a US immigrant rights group, Mijente, says Palantir's technology played a role in raids on food-processing plants in Mississippi in 2019 in which 680 undocumented immigrants – described as “removable aliens” in the official press release – were arrested.
Concerns over involvement in the NHS
Palantir is the forerunner for being awarded the contract for the Federated Data Platform (FDP), worth around £480 million and lasting seven years. The contract notice was published in January 2023. However, the concerns over Palantir's involvement in the NHS began back at the start of the pandemic, when Palantir was awarded a contract to develop a database for NHS England. Palantir's Foundry software was used in the management of ventilators and PPE equipment, as well as delivery of the nationwide vaccination programme.
There are two strands to the concerns over Palantir's involvement within the NHS: the safety of patient data, and the type of company that will be awarded the contract to set up the data framework and seek to exploit it.
Foxglove, a UK legal campaign group that focuses on accountability in the technology industry, MedConfidential, which campaigns for confidentiality in healthcare, the news website OpenDemocracy, and others have all been involved with opposition to Palantir's involvement in the NHS.
Cori Crider, a director at Foxglove, told The Guardian, “A firm like that has no place being the ‘operating system for the NHS’ – period,” adding that the company “makes no secret of its desire to keep profiting from war and surveillance”.
Crider said they have concerns about the Federated Data Platform, including how much confidential patient data is going to be swept in, who is going to have access, and on what terms? Foxglove sent a legal letter seeking answers, and received almost no detail in return.
Phil Booth, founder of medConfidential, says Palantir is the favourite for the contract because it already carries out some of the work envisioned in the FDP. But Booth told The Guardian that Palantir’s work outside the UK should give the NHS pause when it considers awarding the contract. “Is this really a company we want to have at the heart of our NHS? You cannot divorce a piece of software from the company that makes it.”