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June 8, 2020updated 20 Jul 2023 8:45am

NHS Data Controversy: Gov’t Forced to Release Big Tech’s Contract Terms

Palantir touts its wares for £1...

By Claudia Glover

The UK Government has been forced to release the terms of contracts it signed with big tech companies Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Palantir and UK AI specialist Faculty, which gave them access to sensitive NHS data.

The contracts were released on Friday after pressure from privacy groups including media platform Open Democracy and Non Profit “Tech justice” law firm Foxglove. The furore highlights the ongoing sensitivity surrounding perceived commercialisation of public data by commercial companies.

NHS England and Improvement brought in the companies to help it create a data store to bring “multiple data sources into a single, secure location” in a bid to help optimise its COVID-19 response, an NHSX blog suggests.

Data integration and visualisation specialist Palantir agreed to work with the government under a three-month trial for just £1, its contract shows.

Among the published documents: its signed version of the G-Cloud 11 call-off contract. This suggests that the NHS gains a “non-exclusive… royalty-free license to use… project specific IPRs (intellectual property rights)” resulting from the pilot.  It also commits Palantir to “not store or use buyer data except if necessary to fulfil its obligations”. The trial ends June 11.

Over 13,000 people joined a call for transparency amidst probing from MPs in Parliament over the details of the datastore deals.

Read This! Gov’t Pays £15 Million for Access to Royal Mail Data

The deals, agreed on before lockdown and announced on March 28 in an NHSX blog, will include: “The steps which need to be taken to cease processing and to either destroy or return data to NHS England and NHS Improvement once the public health emergency situation has ended” according to the blogpost.

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However, misgivings have been raised by both Open Democracy and Foxglove concerning the finer details of these contracts.

A release by Foxglove states: “The contracts disclosed show that the companies involved, including Faculty and Palantir, were granted the intellectual property rights created out of the performances of the contract (including the creation of databases), and were allowed to train their models and profit off the unprecedented access to NHS data.

“Government lawyers admit this in correspondence, but have claimed that a subsequent (undisclosed) amendment to the contract with Faculty, made after Foxglove’s initial FOI request, has cured this problem”.

The artificial intelligence and data science platform Faculty firm has deep connections into the UK parliament. Faculty was hired to work on the Vote Leave campaign in 2018 and has signed at least nine government contracts in the last two years, totaling around £1.6 million.

Coronavirus Datastore and Big Tech

Big tech companies Google, Amazon and Microsoft have been hired by the UK Government to create and support the datastore.

According to the blogpost release by the NHS, Microsoft is supporting NHSX and NHS England’s technical teams, who have built a backend data store on Microsoft’s cloud platform, Azure, to bring multiple data sources into a single, secure location. A G-cloud data processing contract is in place.

Amazon AWS will be providing further infrastructure for the datastore, helping NHSX to “quickly and securely launch the new Covid-19 response platform for critical public services”.

Google will be providing the use of tools in the G-Suite to allow the NHS to collect critical real-time information on hospital responses to Covid-19. The data used with the G-Suite tools will be aggregated.

Who Holds the Keys to the Datastore?

In its raw format, the data will be stored in a secure “blob” storage, according to the NHS Covid 19 Store Data Impact Assessment (DPIA).

There are 30 types of “data marts” listed in the DPIA, including the Master Patient Index, 2019’s Deprivation Data and Covid-19 Hospitalisation in England Surveillance System (CHESS).

The Impact Assessment states that “a limited number of individuals from NHS England’s Data Services team will have access to the raw data” but that “external data processors Palantir, using their Foundry platform, have been engaged under contract with NHS England and will have access to the data which is aggregated to required level or data which has been de-identified to mitigate the risk of identification of the individual in the data mart”.

When approached for questions by Computer Business Review all contracted companies were unavailable for comment apart from Google and Faculty.

Read this: These “Data Trust” Pilots are a Taste of the Future

Google said: “Google was approached by the innovation arm of the NHS to explore how our technology could assist with their efforts and our employees answered that call to volunteer their expertise free of charge.”

Faculty said: “As is standard for contracts procured through GCloud, Faculty’s contract for the NHS AI Lab already gives the NHS an indefinite licence to the intellectual property (IP) arising from the project meaning the NHS has free use of any software created for the project, even after the contract ends.

“However, we felt this did not go far enough.

“Faculty therefore asked for its contract to be amended to make clear that it will derive no commercial benefit from any software, including trained machine learning models, developed during the course of the project and that the use of the IP is under the sole control of the NHS.

“We have made this unprecedented move in recognition of the unique circumstances of the COVID-19 emergency and the overriding public interest in ensuring public trust in the responsible use of anonymised NHS data. Faculty is proud to be able to play its part in the data response to COVID-19”.

PDFs of the documents can be read here. (Credit, Open Democracy)

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