11 May 2020

The battle against COVID-19 and the collateral loses. Now: the digital privacy

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The measures deployed for SARS CoV-2 spread combat, virus’s study, as well as the efforts to find solutions for pandemic’s elimination, are creating a huge data volume, therefore data mining (the processing of a big volume of data and the collection of important information) becomes a great tool for governments and organizations which want to stop the Covid-19 impact. Still... the entire process developed around the art and sciences of collecting information from the data can either become a business method for the great providers of specific services, or an attempt for mass surveillance by governmental organizations or even both.An attentive look upon the recent actions of the company Palantir makes us believe that between the right to privacy and health, between security and freedom there is sometimes a path that leads to Silicon Valley or Langley, Virginia.

Image source: Profi Media

Palantir, a company with strong connections to the intelligence agencies

A relevant image for the company Palantir was designed in 2017, after a journalistic investigation of The Intercept, according to which „Donald Trump inherited the strongest espionage machine ever”. Here is a resume of the analysis published by this agency: Palantir is a platform that manages the information about to be analysed, developed by Palantir Technologies. It integrates structured and unstructured data, has searching and management capacities of acknowledges, its purpose being to „offer infrastructures that the intelligence organizations need for analysis”.

The company of the billionaire Peter Thiel tried, for a long time, to offer the government, surcharge, indeed, an incomparable power to analyse and exploit the information. Palantir worked, for years, for the US National Intelligence Agency (NSA), being, in fact, “conceived together with the American spies”.

Palantir did not “cover” its ambitions, particularly its will to sell its services to the American government, CIA being a great an early investor in the start-up, through the In-Q-Tel, the agency’s venture capital subsidiary.

According to the documents provided by Edward Snowden, published by The Guardian, in 2013, Palantir (partnering with NSA) has created a special software to ease, increase and accelerate the use of XKEYSCORE, one of the most “complex and intrusive tools from agency’s arsenal”.

The relationship between Palantir and the intelligence agencies seems to date back to 2008, since the first collaboration with the Government Communications Headquarters, GCHQ, from Great Britain. At least three members of the Five Eyes alliance (in 2017) have hired Palantir for the collection and processing of data.

However... in a 2011 document of GCHQ, some were concerned that Palantir was “offering the analyst a high possibility to choose foreign paths”: “The impressive abilities of Palantir to collect data are well-documented, but also the potential of a wrong use. The Palantir software is conceived to make the information be easily selected, which would be impossible for one person only, but the one who coordinates the computer is still responsible with issuing judgements, be it good or bad”.

Therefore, The Intercept was saying, in 2017, “everyone is concerned with the espionage agencies and their use of Palantir software to breaking the privacy of civil rights of a great number of people who are constantly tracked. The world will only have to hope for the strongest clients of Palantir to follow the rules”.

New business opportunities or access to sensitive data

Three years after The Intercept’s warning, the National Health Service (NHS), from Great Britain, has built a new data platform, which tracks the coordinated response approach to the COVID-19 pandemic evolution in Great Britain. This complicated task was given to Palantir, which offered its Foundry soft.

Although NHS says it introduced a series of data protection measures, and the British government said it will destroy all records once the crisis is over, the critics (the Private International digital rights group) are concerned with the long-term agreement which connects NHS to Palantir and the Faculty involvement, the start-up headquartered in London, known also for its connections with Cambridge Analytica.

Also, The Guardian says the project will include big data volume about individuals, including some protected health information, results of COVID-19 tests, the content of 911 NHS medical counselling calls and clinical information about those in intensive therapy. These are “unseen quantities” of data and although NHS says they will keep controlling them and will impose severe restrictions, The Guardian could access private documents used by Palantir, Faculty and NHSX officials, a NHS division, which deals with digital innovation.

In the meantime, in March, the US Centre for Diseases Control and Prevention has started to connect to a new app, belonging to Palantir, which promises to help tracking the COVID-19 spread. Foundry includes a series of anonymous data from hospitals and medical agencies, including laboratory tests results.

One month later, Palantir offered the US Health Department (HHS) an IT-based tool to track the coronavirus spread. HHS Protect Now started to work, on April 10th, and helps the officials to come up with reports on the coronavirus spread in US, by collecting data from state governments and medical institutions.

It is still unclear how these data look like, where they come from or how are they used. HHS Protect Now was turning into the “only testing source of the data by April 20th”, according to an internal document of the Trump Administration which got in the hands of The Daily Beast journalists.

Palantir received the contract from the Health Department, worth of $17,3 million, being the biggest contract ever given to a Silicon Valley company to support America’s response to the pandemic. The funds are dedicated to Palantir Gotham licenses, a platform slightly different from Foundry, a technology projected to collect data from many sources and, regardless of the form and dimension, to turn them into a coherent whole. On April 21th, Palantir got another contract worth of $7, 5 million with the US Health Department. 

A digital platform with global coverage?

At the end of April, the New Zeeland media was saying that Palantir discussed also with the Wellington government for the Covid-19 combat measures. According to the Health Ministry statements, the institution “had a 30 minutes meeting on March 18th to understand how Palantir helped other countries to manage their data for the Covid-19 response”, but “no decisions have been made regarding a current or future collaboration”.

In New Zeeland, Palantir and its co-founder, Peter Thiel, were in the middle of some controversies, two years ago, when the Silicon Valley billionaire and his friends started to buy properties in the area.

According to Bloomerang, tens of countries are using data extraction software, provided by Palantir Technologies Inc, for their coronavirus response measures.

Palantir offers its software to governmental officials from France, Germany, Switzerland and Austria. The European health agencies are being proposed to use both Foundry and Gotham, as a combined solution which would help countries to offer a perspective over the pandemic.

Although some states and organizations around the world, including the EU, have strict rules which are regulating the collection and archive of data “some officials are willing to test the limits of private life protection in the name of combating the virus”. Tens of governments in Asia and Latin America have expressed their interest as well, says the same agency.

Forbes also says that Palantir is currently working with at least 12 governments for the response to the new coronavirus.

At the beginning of April, the French media was announcing that the French hospitals could use Palantir tools, a possible partnership which is raising some questions, as there were talks between the authorities on the implementation of IT solutions that could lead to a better response against the new coronavirus.

But in France also, many NGOs have reacted: “state’s initiatives to counter the virus should not be used as a way of entering the new era of digital surveillance systems which are generalized invasive. Today, more than ever, governments should make sure that restrictions impose to human rights are not breaking the specific guarantees, established long ago”.

On April 30th, Les Echos was stating that, although the French subsidiary of Palantir directly contacted the government to offer its services for free, the offer of this “technology lanus” was refused, the state secretary for digital economy, Cedric O, stating that Palantir is not part of the Stop Covid mobile applications project.

In Germany, the Cvodi-19 crisis team from Hessa wants to use the Foundry software of Palantir company, something the Home Affairs Ministry confirmed. In fact, the Frankfurt police (Hessa land) was the first in Germany to use another Palantir soft, the Gotham.

Palantir offered its programme, also, to the federal government, which led to huge debates. “The evaluation of many data in the fight against the virus is important. But it is fatal if the German authorities are cooperating with corporations which are covering the secrete services.” (Andrej Kunho, Bundestag member)

Critics say there is a special connection between the Palantir company and the German state, and “this cooperation should end, not be extended”. (the parliamentarian Die Linke Hermann Schaus)

The current Palantir CEO, Alex Karp, got his PhD in Frankfurt, where the business man, Peter Thiel, was born. More than such resemblances, the older cooperation with Palantir, the use of Gotham software as a basic analysis tool of Hessendata, that the Hessa land police works with, was the object of a parliamentary investigation, which led to no results, focusing on the 2017 illicit attribution of contracts, based on no auction.

The Health Ministry in Austria confirmed for Der Standard that he is analyzing an offer from Palantir. The chancellor Sebastian Kurz met with a Palantir founder in Silicon Valley, at the beginning of this year and, then, at the World Economic Forum from Davos.

Palantir offered its services to Spain as well. According to some governmental sources analyzed by El Pais, the cooperation was, in April, still at formal discussions level. El Pais calls the Palantir offer “part of a European offensive campaign that supports Donald Trump” and thinks the “temptations surrounding the chaos and nervousness can make authorities cancel or ignore privacy rules”.

Surveillance capitalism

Given the Palantir experience in surveillance activity, the fact that it is now working with data which are available to the public health authorities raises some questions.

As the interest for the surveillance technologies increases, in order to face the pandemic crisis, the privacy defenders are issuing warnings. The Electronic Frontier foundation is asking for an attentive research of the new relations between governments and private companies, and Open Democracy thinks that “using surveillance powers around the world to track individuals in the fight against Covid-19...the measures imposed so far are unseen in their global magnitude and the restrictions over liberties”.

It is “always tempting to answer crises with the newest, and often most intrusive, tech. Resist that temptation and concentrate on the demands of the problem at hand”.

The Privacy International, Big Brother Watch, medConfidential, Foxglove and Open Rights Group sent Palantir 10 questions on the cooperation with the National Health Service from Great Britain.

Among those 10 questions there are: Is Palantir obtaining access to any databases and/or records held by the NHS? How is Palantir ensuring confidentiality of data that is ingested into its systems? Will Palantir retain the NHS data analysis or insights gleaned from this contract once this exercise is over? Will Palantir be able to use the product trained under the agreement with NHS to improve other future products provided by Palantir?

Furthermore, also in Great Britain, where the NHS gave up recently to an app proposed by Apple and Google to help the governments and the health agencies reduce the virus’s spread, adopting an option which is also being questioned, besides the Palantir cooperation, a group of 175 researchers are seeking answers on the establishment of a centralized database, composed of sensitive personal information.

In an open letter, NHSX is being askeld to "publicly commit that there will not be a database or databases, regardless of what controls are put in place, that would allow de-anonymization of users of its system". Those who signed the letter are afraid that such a database will become “"a tool that enables data collection on the population, or on targeted sections of society, for surveillance.”

Obviously, currently, the ability to cope with such a threat like the Covid-19 pandemic is improved by the access to available data and technologies.

But before the epidemic most of states are facing now, the so-called “surveillance capitalism” was being questioned.

Shohana Zuboff, a professor at the Harvard Business School, was warning that we have become “blind and deaf” to how high-tech technologies are exploiting our personal data for their own purposes.

Surveillance capitalism, a terms professor Zuboff invented in 2014, as the “unilateral claiming of private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data”, is undermining the personal autonomy and erodes democracy.

 These data are used and sold for profit, the extended economic logic beyond the technological companies to new ecosystems based on surveillance in all economic fields, from insurances to vehicles, to health, education, finances, to each “intelligent” products and each service described as “personalized”.

Surveillance capitalists now develop “economies of action,” as they learn to “tune, herd, and condition our behaviour with subtle and subliminal cues, rewards, and punishments that shunt us toward their most profitable outcomes”.

Also, democracy is “eroded from the outside”, as surveillance capitalism is an “unprecedented concentration of knowledge and the power that accrues to such knowledge. They know everything about us, but we know little about them”.

“Their knowledge extends far beyond the compilation of the information we gave them. It’s the knowledge that they have produced from that information that constitutes their competitive advantage, and they will never give that up. These knowledge asymmetries introduce wholly new axes of social inequality and injustice.”

We may know be “in the middle of another seismic moment in the history of digital privacy”.  Mass surveillance methods could save lives around the world, permitting authorities to track and curb the spread of the novel coronavirus with speed and accuracy not possible during prior pandemics, but “The ability to learn your location and predict your behaviour is priceless to both Silicon Valley and the Pentagon, whether the ultimate goal is to target you with a Warby Parker ad or a Hellfire missile” (Sam Biddle, The Intercept).

As such, the use of these methods should go hand in hand with responsible decisions, given the that the connections established during the pandemic can determine how the humankind is answering to global threats in the following period, and for the mistakes which have accompanied the post 9/11 world to not be repeated in the post-Covid-19 period.

Translated by Andreea Soare