Palantir – the Secretive Data Analytics Company – Gained Access to Millions of Personal Records for Just £1
Palantir Technologies, Peter Thiel’s software company that specializes in big data analytics, has long been a subject of consternation among privacy advocates. The company’s apparent penchant for unconstrained big-data aggregation has, of course, not helped in improving its much-tarnished image.
Now, in a bombshell development, it appears that Palantir gained access to the personal data of millions of Britons, at the astronomical cost of just £1 (a single pound sterling)! Google, on the other hand, offered “technical, advisory and other support” for free.
As per the blog post of OpenDemocracy, a UK-based political activist website, the British National Health Service (NHS) gave Palantir, Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN), Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), Google (NASDAQ:GOOG:), and the AI-focused startup – known as Faculty – access to the personal data of millions of UK citizens as a part of a comprehensive data-sharing agreement meant to combat the ongoing coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic by analyzing the relevant patterns and trends.
What many may find troubling, however, is the astonishing breadth of data that is now at the disposal of Palantir and other big-data companies. As an illustration, personal contact details, gender, race, religion, occupation, physical and mental health conditions, past criminal offenses, and political affiliation were all shared with these companies.
The British government had initially resisted disclosing the details pertaining to this data-sharing agreement with Palantir and others. It was only after it was threatened with a lawsuit following the rejection of multiple freedom of information requests – filed by OpenDemocracy, CNBC [linked], etc. – that Boris Johnson’s administration finally caved, publishing the relevant details just hours before the formal commencement of court proceedings.
OpenDemocracy’s editor-in-chief, Mary Fitzgerald, and the law firm Foxglove’s founding director, Cori Crider, wrote in a blog post:
“The contracts show that companies involved in the NHS datastore project, including Faculty and Palantir, were originally granted intellectual property rights (including the creation of databases), and were allowed to train their models and profit off their unprecedented access to NHS data.”
Bear in mind that big-data aggregation is the proverbial bread and butter for these tech companies. As a refresher, the Palo Alto-based Palantir collects, analyzes, and interprets vast conglomeration of information from diverse sources such as chat logs, street cameras, credit card statements, airline records, etc.
We reported back in April 2020 that Palantir expects to generate around $1 billion in revenue during the current year. According to the documents examined by Bloomberg, the data analytics and mining company increased its annual revenue by 24 percent to $739 million in 2019. The company expects to accelerate its top-line growth, anticipating a 38 percent revenue boost in 2020 which translates to an aggregate amount of around $1 billion. Bear in mind that the company earns a considerable proportion of its revenue through long-term deals, thereby, proving quite resistant to the transitory macro-economic deterioration, as is currently being witnessed due to the coronavirus pandemic. As an illustration, Palantir expects to earn around $839 million from existing contracts and customers this year. Moreover, as of the 31st of December 2019, the data company retains a backlog of contracts that is collectively worth $2.2 billion.
In a notable development, Bloomberg uncovered evidence within the documentary stash that it perused that hints toward Palantir planning to go public. This is all the more striking given that the company had been resistant over the years in pursuing a public flotation over concerns that it would be valued by investors in a manner that is generic to consultancy firms. Additionally, the plethora of private investors in the firm meant that the company has not been in need of public funding. This allowed Palantir to build tailored products – such as the data aggregation software ‘Foundry’ – without having to tolerate the glare that accompanies similar companies in the public sphere.
Palantir first gained notoriety when it worked in tandem with the Pentagon and CIA during the U.S. campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. More recently, the company’s software was used by JP Morgan (NYSE:JPM) to monitor its employees by aggregating information collected from their browsing habits, cell phone GPS locations, emails, etc. JP Morgan intended to use the program to flush out rogue traders but was forced to scale down its dealings following the dissolution of a number of Palantir’s corporate partnerships.