Could Government deals with US data analytics firm impact COVID-19 for illegal migrants?

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Government under criticism as deals with the controversial US data analytics firm Palantir could hinder the Home Office’s claims about safety for illegal migrants who come forward for treatment and vaccination against COVID-19. 

Rose Elizabeth Dodd investigates. 

The Government has said that COVID-19 testing, treatment and vaccinations are free on the NHS – for all. Immigration status will not be checked and people lacking papers will not face deportation upon stepping up for COVID-19 aid. This is not an amnesty for leave to remain in the UK and illegal migrants will remain ineligible for mainstream benefits, the Home Office has said. 

Pew Research Centre estimates that approximately 1.2 million people live and work illegally in the UK today – more than double the figure estimated in the Home Office’s most recent approximation in 2005. 

Theresa May’s policies, designed to create hostile environments for immigrants, have left many illegal and legal migrants unable to seek basic help through services such as the NHS and police. Fearful and distrusting of the Government, many migrants could avoid calls to be vaccinated against COVID-19. 

In March 2020, Health Secretary Matt Hancock quietly closed a deal with US secretive data analytics company, Palantir, that could render fears about the legitimacy of safety for migrants in the UK justified.

Palantir, co-founded by Peter Thiel – a financial endorser of the 2016 Trump Campaign, provides software that compiles multitudes of information from disparate sources to show patterns and relationships. The deal permitted digitally driven, secure, reliable and timely processing of COVID-19 related and NHS data (including confidential information such as address, health, race and age). Such technology is apparently used to gauge hospital bed capacity, oxygen and ventilator availability. Palantir initially charged the UK Government and NHS a fee of just £1 for this technology.

The Government and NHS assured the public that all COVID/NHS data stored by Palantir would be deleted and contracts terminated at the end of the pandemic. But, this assurance may no longer stand, as on December 11 Palantir landed a deal worth £23 million to continue work with the NHS for a further 2 years. 

The NHS is working alongside Palantir and artificial intelligence specialist, Faculty, to produce a new age digital system and data store under the banner NHSX.

According to the project’s leader, Matthew Gould, NHSX will reshape the health service far beyond the pandemic. Gould has said that the public will be updated on plans and progress continually, although little information has been shared. 

The NHS is not the only UK body to couple up with the private tech firm. The Border Operations Centre will be using data technology and software produced by Palantir to manage post-Brexit borders and customs data. The software will pull together information from different government computers to monitor the flow of people and cargo across the border. 

Palantir has frequently been accused of violating human rights, engaging in illegal mass surveillance and inappropriately accessing, sharing and profiting from the personal data of citizens regardless of data protection laws. 

In 2014, Palantir was contracted to build a system for the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency that permitted agents to access profiles and records of people suspected to be violating immigration laws. 

Frequently working alongside the US Department of Defence, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and the CIA, Palantir has significantly contributed to the deportation of illegal migrants from the US. 

Through predictive policing and risk assessment algorithms, Palantir software has also been used to perpetuate systemic racism within police departments in the US.

The UK Government has provided little transparency on the nature and scope of partnerships with Palantir. As Palantir seeps deeper into the running of UK bodies, the firm will have increasing access to and power over the data of UK citizens. 

COVID-19 strikes irrespective of creed, colour, class or immigration status. However , socioeconomic and healthcare inequalities result in staggering disparities in infection risks and outcomes. To minimise the disparities between infection and mortality rates around the UK, sufficient healthcare must be available to all (and all must be able to trust the systems in place that provide the care). 

Herd immunity will only transpire once a majority of the population is vaccinated – including the vast invisible population. A person must register with a GP before they can be vaccinated, where their personal details will be recorded in an NHS data store, now run by Palantir. 

With Palantir’s enduring infiltration into British public bodies, the company’s controversial history and no contractual guarantee offered to illegal migrants by the Government, is coming forward for COVID-19 treatment or vaccination completely risk free for the undocumented population?

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