This article was originally written by April Glaser and published by NBC News on July 22, 2020.
The private data mining company Palantir is best known for its work with law enforcement agencies, like Immigration and Customs Enforcement and local police departments, the intelligence community and the Department of Defense. It has received considerable criticism for helping the Trump administration track immigrants.
But in recent months and with the debut of its stock on public markets approaching, Palantir has a new focus: tracking the fast-spreading coronavirus.
According to U.S. procurement records reviewed by NBC News, Palantir has been awarded contracts worth more than $42 million with federal agencies on the pandemic response. That includes two contracts in April worth $24.9 million with the Department of Health and Human Services to build a new platform, HHS Protect, which will aid the White House coronavirus task force’s efforts to track the spread of the virus. HHS awarded Palantir an additional $2 million in May.
The company has also won a contract potentially worth over $10 million with the Department of Homeland Security for coronavirus tracking and a nearly $5 million contract for work on the pandemic response with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The leap from serving law enforcement to mitigating a public health crisis has a cadre of elected officials, immigration advocates and public health experts worried that a company that specializes in sharing information with ICE and the police is poorly positioned to ensure the privacy of sensitive medical records and cultivate the public trust necessary to carry out an effective pandemic response.
Palantir’s history of deportation work is of particular concern to advocates. More than 31 Democratic members of Congress, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Rep. Joaquín Castro of Texas, signed two letters at the end of June demanding answers from HHS Secretary Alex Azar about how Palantir will be handling the personal health information of people seeking medical care in the pandemic.
Both letters pointed to Palantir’s arrangements with the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee and Resettlement and ICE that allowed for cross-agency data sharing, which directly led to the arrest and deportation of hundreds of immigrants starting in 2017.
“Trump’s HHS has violated Americans’ trust over and over. The Department must guarantee that this database will not contain personally identifiable information — and that they will put in strong safeguards to ensure it cannot be weaponized by agencies like ICE,” Warren said in an emailed statement.
HHS and Palantir did not respond to requests for comment.
Palantir’s pivot to the pandemic comes as it prepares for an initial public stock offering, a huge milestone for the 15-year-old startup co-founded by Facebook board member Peter Thiel. The company operated almost entirely out of the public eye for years, helping U.S. spy agencies track terrorists by analyzing enormous amounts of data and building deep connections with people in the U.S. government. The company is now valued at around $20 billion.
President Donald Trump’s election proved a turning point for the company, with Thiel emerging as one of Silicon Valley’s most vocal supporters of Trump and his immigration agenda. Palantir’s work with the government, particularly Homeland Security and ICE, became the subject of scrutiny by civil rights organizations that point to the centrality of the company’s software in the conducting of workplace raids and the separation of immigrant families that has led to deportations, which have increased under the Trump administration.
Some of the people behind those organizations see Palantir’s pandemic work as an effort to repair the company’s image ahead of its public stock listing.
“We view Palantir’s foray into health care surveillance as a rebranding process ahead of its IPO,” said Julie Mao, the director of Just Futures, a nonprofit group that supports immigrant rights.
In April, Palantir’s president, Shyam Sankar, called the pandemic the new “driving thrust” of the company.
Robert Greenwald, a professor and the director of the Center for Health Law and Policy Innovation at Harvard Law School, said that turning to a firm known for its work in deportation will discourage immigrants from getting the health care they need.
“Companies like Palantir have made their choices and they have gone in a direction that does not make them appropriate for sensitive public health projects,” Greenwald said.
Palantir was awarded the contracts for the coronavirus tracking system without competition, which the agency attributed to the “unusual and compelling urgency” of the pandemic, according to a notice from HHS.
Palantir’s reach into the coronavirus response also extends far beyond the U.S. The company is aiding the national virus response efforts of over a dozen countries, including the United Kingdom, where it received a contract with the National Institutes of Health for just one English pound.
Josh Harris, a vice president at Palantir, told Bloomberg in April that the company is in talks with “several dozen” countries around the world and is making its software available free to governments and international organizations working to prevent the spread of the deadly virus. Palantir has offered its database work free to governments in the past, notably in New Orleans, where it provided pro bono predictive services for the police for six years.
Palantir is reportedly also serving the pandemic response in Greece, Austria, Spain and Canada. The United Nations World Food Program is also using Palantir’s platform in its logistics tracking as it ferries aid to countries that have been hit by COVID-19 outbreaks.
So little is known about the scope of the Palantir contracts for the U.S. government’s pandemic response that Just Futures filed 22 Freedom of Information Act requests last month to learn more about how the company is sharing and handling sensitive health data.
Though HHS has said the data will remain anonymous, Faiza Patel, the co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said data can be de-anonymized, too.
“Our laws for protecting personal health information are really weak,” Patel said, adding that although we have the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, known as HIPAA, it “has lots of exceptions that are triggered in a situation like a pandemic.”