UK may use controversial tech giant Palantir to improve test and trace

UK may use controversial tech giant Palantir to improve its struggling test and trace system after No10’s bungling programme gives 7,000 people WRONG self-isolation dates

  • Officials have been in talks with the US tech company about using its software
  • It comes after IT glitches which have hindered abilities to control the outbreak
  • But it will spark tensions considering Palantir is a controversial data company

Number 10 is reportedly in talks with Palantir about getting the controversial tech firm to help improve the bungling test and trace system.

Officials have held discussions with the US data analytics company about using its software to manage sensitive contact tracing data, according to the Financial Times. 

But the move is bound to spark tension considering the firm has attracted criticism from civil liberties groups who say its software — used by government surveillance agencies around the world — helped US officials track down illegal immigrants.  

Under the contract being discussed, Palantir’s software would help with tracking the spread of the disease while managing the vast trove of information about new virus cases more effectively to avoid any more blunders. 

NHS Test and Trace —which Boris Johnson promised would be ‘world-beating’ — has repeatedly been undermined by embarrassing IT glitches, which have hindered the country’s ability to control the outbreak.

In the latest fiasco, it was last night revealed more than 7,000 people were recently given wrong self-isolation dates by NHS Test and Trace after a ‘software error’. 

It follows a data blunder in which thousands of Covid-19 cases were unreported due to an Excel spreadsheet error, delaying efforts to control the outbreak at the start of October.

Slow turnaround times for Covid-19 tests and the delayed roll-out of a phone app — which came three months behind schedule — are also among a series of failings.  

Boris Johnson said today he ‘accepted the failings’ of the test and trace system after the Labour leader asked him to use the second national lockdown to fix it. Ministers have yet to cave into demands for Baroness Dido Harding, the head of the scheme, to be sacked. 

The British government is in talks with the controversial tech giant Palantir Technologies Inc to improve the struggling test and trace system. Pictured: A banner featuring the logo of Palantir hung at the New York Stock Exchange on the day of their initial public offering (IPO) in Manhattan, New York City, U.S., September 30, 2020

NHS Test and Trace has been undermined by embarrassing IT glitches which have hindered abilities to control the outbreak. Today it was revealed more than 7,000 people were recently given wrong self-isolation dates by NHS Test and Trace after a ‘software error’

The Prime Minister promised a ‘world-beating’ national test-and-trace system earlier this year.

It was pledged that people with Covid-19 symptoms could get tested and have their results within 24 hours. 

Anyone who tests positive would then get tracked immediately and their contacts reached and told to self-isolate, to stop the spread of the virus. 

But the scheme has disappointed and the government’s scientific advisory body said last month its impact on virus transmission was marginal. 

Palantir, headquartered in Denver, Colorado, may be brought in to help clean up the mess, the FT and Bloomberg reported, citing insider sources. 

Talks have focused on licensing its software to the NHS in order for public health officials to manage data more effectively, after outdated techniques have caused problems. 

The Foundry software being considered is essentially a platform which can hold data so anyone within an organisation, despite their tech abilities, can interact with it and use it to make decisions.

WHY IS PALANTIR CONTROVERSIAL? 

Palantir is controversial because it made surveillance software that the US Government used to track down illegal immigrants so it could deport them.

Its technology can harvest personal information about people and has been harshly criticised by civil liberty campaigners for breaching the public’s right to privacy.   

The company has been described as one that ‘knows everything about you’ by Bloomberg, and its software is used by government surveillance agencies around the world for spying purposes.

It is able to link official information such as medical records or driving licences to social media profiles and to track people’s activity. 

The US Department of Health and Human Services uses Palantir to detect Medicare fraud, the FBI uses it in criminal probes, and the Department of Homeland Security deploys it to screen air travelers and keep tabs on immigrants. 

The company is already in the crosshairs of activists and could attract additional scrutiny for its potential use in the UK’s Test and Trace system.   

The company has already been contracted by the NHS along with US-based Microsoft and Google and Faculty AI, which is headquartered in London, to work on a Covid ‘data store’.

The computer dashboard manages the distribution of PPE and other medical equipment between UK hospitals to make sure they have what they need to deal with the coronavirus crisis. 

But privacy campaigners have criticised the lack of transparency around the contracting process.

Privacy International, Big Brother Watch, medConfidential, Foxglove and Open Rights Group sent Palantir 10 questions about their work with the NHS during the public health crisis, and published them on the Privacy InternationaI website in April. 

Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, said in the statement: ‘It is unacceptable that a large-scale project involving patient data is being pursued with Palantir in absence of stakeholder engagement or public transparency. 

‘Palantir and NHSX must be fully open and transparent about the ‘Covid-19 datastore’, the nature of contracts, the use of patient data, the confidentiality of 111 calls, and make details of any predictive analytics and anonymisation techniques available for public audit at the soonest possibility.’

One person familiar with the discussions acknowledged that using Palantir software for test and trace, which handles hundreds of thousands of personal case contacts per week, would be far more sensitive than the work the company is currently undertaking for the NHS, the FT reported.

They added that the data analysis group may lose out on the contract because ‘the optics are just not good’

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.

She said: ‘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.’

But she added that the UK government’s record on transparency with Covid-19 crisis 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.’ 

It is used by the European plane maker Airbus SE to crunch data about specific on-board components to anticipate any future repair problems, for example. 

While Merck, the pharmaceutical giant, has a long-term Palantir contract to use Foundry in drug development and supply chain management. 

As well as this, modeling will potentially allow to track the spread of the disease through particular sectors or parts of the country.

Palantir, founded by Donald Trump ally and billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel, did not immediately respond to Reuters’ requests for comment but declined to comment to the FT.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson also failed to confirm whether the claims were true.

But they tried to dispel fears around the involvement of a private company in a system that relies on people providing sensitive data about their whereabouts, friends and family. 

The spokesperson said: ‘NHS Test and Trace is committed to the highest ethical and data governance standards.

‘Personal Data can only be seen by people who need it to have access to it, for example to carry out contact tracing.’

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 DHSC spokesperson said Splunk provides ‘IT support’ and does not manage testing or tracing data. 

Palantir was also contracted by the NHS in April, along with other private firms, to work on a Covid ‘data store’ to help manage distribution of medical equipment during the coronavirus crisis.

But it drew concern from several privacy companies which, while calling the deal ‘unacceptable’, questioned if Palantir would profit from being able to access such data.

The news comes after months of criticism on the bungling contact tracing system set up in May to avoid a second wave of Covid-19. 

In the latest fiasco, Government chiefs confirmed today more than 7,000 people were given wrong self-isolation dates by NHS Test and Trace after a ‘software error’.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman confirmed thousands of people had been given wrong information in the first couple of weeks in October. 

The error — reportedly caused by an internal update to the system’s software — affected 7,230 people who were ‘close contacts’ of coronavirus-positive patients.

Contacts of infected patients are asked to self-isolate for 14 days in case they have caught the virus, to stop them potentially spreading the coronavirus to other people. 

It typically takes five days for someone who is infected with the coronavirus to show symptoms, such as a cough and high temperature.

The mistake in timings of quarantine periods suggests potentially infected people were not self-isolating when they needed to be. 

On the other hand, it may have meant some were staying indoors when they didn’t need to be. 

Once the error was realised 4,775 people were contacted with new advice on when their self-isolation period should end.

But 2,455 individuals who were affected by the glitch had already finished self-isolating before they could be reached. 

It is not known whether these people were told to end their self-isolation too early, thereby putting those around them at risk of catching the coronavirus, or too late, causing unnecessary aggravation and possibly financial hardship.

‘We have reassessed the self-isolation periods for a number of people who were contact traced, following close contact with someone who tested positive for Covid-19,’ the department’s spokesman said.

The spokesperson did not divulge what the implications of the error would be, or how it occurred.

Sky News reported that the error came from the software used by contact tracers, the Contact Tracing and Advisory Service (CTAS).

The system, developed by Public Health England (PHE), automatically calculates how many days people who test positive or their contacts need to isolate. 

According to official guidance, someone who has tested positive should isolate for 10 days and a close contact should isolate for 14 days.

But sources within test and trace told Sky that it was not clear if the count starts on the day isolation begins or the day after. 

Contact tracers were allegedly given guidance saying contacts must isolate both 14 days ‘from’ and ‘after’ the day they were last in touch with an infected person.  

Palantir, co-founded by Peter Thiel, has previously attracted criticism for its involvement with the US immigration service and national security agencies

Test and Trace only reached 60 per cent of contacts in the week ending October 21. But scientists said that, because many positive cases were missed, the figure may be as low as only one in four contacts being reached

Local health protection teams reached 97 per cent of contacts, compared to just above 50 per cent for contact tracers in call centres

Test and Trace missed more people who had tested positive for coronavirus than ever before, and hence more contacts. This graph shows that even among contacts that were reached, it still took longer for tracers to get hold of them and tell them to self-isolate after the positive case was identified

Further delays in turning around swabs were recorded. Scientists have said positive cases must be identified rapidly to curb the virus – but many are waiting longer than 48 hours for their test results

Once the rules were recently clarified by the Cabinet Office, it was realised the CTAS software had been giving people the wrong self-isolation dates, Sky News reported. 

It comes a month after it was revealed 16,000 cases were essentially lost between a data transfer from Public Health England to NHS Test and Trace.

A technical glitch, described by Labour as ‘shambolic’, meant cases were chopped off an Excel spreadsheet because it had reached its maximum size. 

PHE said all those who tested positive were informed once the error was discovered. 

But it meant the cases’ close contact weren’t reached and told to self isolate in order to contain the virus at a time when cases were surging. 

Meanwhile, the outgoing director of the scheme admitted testing is ‘by no means perfect’ as she handed over to former Sainsbury’s boss Mike Coupe yesterday.

In a thread of tweets, Sarah-Jane Marsh wrote the programme needed to give ‘even greater control to local systems’, adding that ‘most of all we need to better communicate that testing is a means to an end not an end (in) itself’.

‘It is not the strategy, it enables the strategy, and whilst we have a scaled diagnostic capability to be proud of, testing alone will never be the answer,’ she added.

It came after Boris Johnson said he shared people’s ‘frustrations’ with the system and said there needed to be faster test turnaround times.

His comments, on October 22, came after figures for the week prior showed that only one in seven people received their virus test results within 24 hours, the lowest on record.

The Prime Minister said: ‘I share people’s frustrations and I understand totally why we do need to see faster turnaround times and we do need to improve it.’

More recent figures from last Thursday show four in ten close contacts are still not being reached by call handlers – miles away from the minimum of eight in ten SAGE said must be told to self-isolate in order to prevent another full-blown outbreak and second lockdown. 

The Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer today asked Mr Johnson to use the lockdown to ‘fix Test and Trace’, adding: ‘We’ve been going round and round in circles on this.

‘The latest figures show that 113,000 contacts were not even reached and that’s just in one week.

‘Only 20 per cent of those who should be isolating are doing so and the majority of people still don’t get results in 24 hours,’ Sir Keir said in PMQs.

The Prime Minister praised the Test and Trace system, but added: ‘I’m perfectly willing to accept the failings of Test and Trace, of course I am, and of course I take full responsibility for the frustrations people have experienced with that system.’

It came after Mr Johnson’s announcement of the second national lockdown on Saturday led to outcrys for a an overhaul of the test and trace system.

Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor of cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, said: ‘Mass rapid and effective testing and isolating of infected people really is the best way for the country to get out of this nightmare. 

‘It highlights the terrible failure of efforts to improve the NHS Test and Trace system fast enough and to make it adequate over the summer after we emerged from the previous lockdown.

‘The failure to keep pace with demand earlier in the autumn, which was the genesis of this second wave, meant people have been less likely to follow the rules. It has also meant that people without symptoms, but who were infectious, have been spreading the virus without any way of knowing that they are doing anything wrong.’

Dr Amitava Banerjee, an associate professor in clinical data science, University College London, said: ‘Aiming for a minimal infection rate and total rethinking of our national test and trace process are crucial for physical, mental and economic health of the nation.’ 

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