As the floor drops out from under many startups, some tech companies are finding a path forward by meeting new government needs.
Among them is Palantir, a secretive government-friendly big data operation that’s able to ingest vast amounts of information to visualize trends and track individuals — useful tasks as the spread of COVID-19 threatens to overwhelm healthcare systems and ravage economies.
In mid-March, The Wall Street Journal reported that Palantir was working with the CDC to model the potential spread of the virus. Forbes reports that CDC staffers are now regularly using Palantir’s web app to visualize the spread of the virus and to anticipate hospital needs. According to that report, Palantir is eschewing dealing with sensitive personally identifying information in its coronavirus efforts, instead providing analysis of anonymized hospital and healthcare data, lab results and equipment supplies through a platform called Palantir Foundry.
In the U.K., Palantir is also providing the National Health Service (NHS) with COVID-19 data analysis through the company’s Foundry software. In a blog post that mentioned the partnership, the U.K. government said that it will use Foundry “which has been primarily developed in the UK” to “[enable] disparate data to be integrated, cleaned, and harmonised in order to develop the single source of truth that will support decision-making.”
According to a new report from Bloomberg, Palantir is also pitching its analytics software to government officials in France, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. The company is apparently pitching both its Foundry software and a tool called Gotham, which is best-known for helping intelligence and law enforcement agencies track individuals, as in the case of the company’s work with ICE. Those two tools are being proposed to European health agencies as a blended solution that could help countries get a bird’s-eye view of the pandemic.
As interest in surveillance technologies ramps up to meet the mounting crisis, privacy advocates are already sounding the alarm. The Electronic Frontier Foundation cautioned that “governments around the world are demanding extraordinary new surveillance powers” to fight the virus and urges close scrutiny of new relationships between governments and private companies that arise out of the pandemic.
Among those relationships: Palantir’s co-founder and chairman Peter Thiel is one of the Trump administration’s most prominent allies in the tech world. His sometimes controversial projects and investments generally attract attention, Palantir included.
Likely aware of its reputation as the shadowy tech giant that helps to power ICE’s deportation machine, Palantir is apparently acknowledging the privacy implications of its new work. In a statement provided to The Wall Street Journal, Palantir’s privacy lead Courtney Bowman asserted that privacy and civil liberty must be taken as “guiding concentrations” in any data-driven COVID-19 response, “not as afterthoughts.”
While it appears to be taking on a new role with the U.S. COVID-19 response, Palantir has worked with the U.S. federal government on infectious health threats for years. In 2010, the CDC used Palantir to monitor an outbreak of cholera in Haiti.
Some of that work is very recent. In late January, Palantir signed a $3.6 million contract with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to provide software for PEPFAR, a long-running international HIV relief program.