Not weeks ago, Twitter saw trending tweets featuring about World War 3. A month later humans are caught up with their worst battle against a virus that has already claimed 42000 lives so far. With countries employing different strategies to save its citizens and try to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), they are also teaming up with modern technological solutions like Artificial Intelligence, Big Data Analysis, Computer Vision, Machine Learning, Edge Computing, etc. Some of which are considered as a technological feat and met with awe, some are earning outrage like constant surveillance and tracking.
While countries are going through throes of lockdown, with governments launching unprecedented public health and economics responses, researchers straining their eyes and computers looking for a cure, the situation evolves on day-to-day basis. As result authorities are forced to take certain desperate and draconian measures too. For instance, UK’s National Health Services teamed up with data-mining company Palantir to monitor the grim situation. Additionally, it also teamed up with Microsoft Corp’s Azure cloud platform (to bring data sources in one site), Amazon.com Inc.’s Amazon Web Services Inc.(for infrastructure for critical public services), London-based artificial intelligence technology company Faculty(to make dashboards, models and simulations that decision-makers would view) and Alphabet Inc. unit Google LLC (collect real-time operational data like occupancy levels and Accident & Emergency capacity) to develop a data platform for its Covid-19 response. However, the notorious history of Palantir is drawing attention to this partnership.
According to officials, this step was imperative for the given reasons:
- Access the number of calls to the NHS Helpline.
- Track the capacity of emergency departments and facilities like ventilators, no of beds, staff on duty around the clock, etc. This will be crucial to know the quantity of critical equipment and facilities to be distributed
- Identify emerging hotspots and provide immediate resources.
- Monitor the spread of the virus and identify risk groups.
- Gather info about the length of stay of patients or allocate them with facilities.
The urgency with which the deal was struck and the degree of data that shall be shared, raises eyebrows among privacy concerned groups. This comes after earlier Palantir surfaced in mainstream news as it had provoked criticism from the human rights group due to its surveillance work that helped ICE target undocumented immigrants in America. ICE agents used its software to build profiles of undocumented children and family members that could be used for prosecution and arrest, collect data about family history, past border crossing, etc., blatantly abusing basic human rights. Besides, it is rumored about its alleged involvement to track Osama Bin Laden. In late 2019, it was again on radar for taking up a military contract from Pentagon, which was previously abandoned by Google. It also works with legal research firms like Credit Suisse, FBI, CIA, JP Morgan Chase, clients like Merck, Airbus, etc.
Hence without a doubt it necessary that NHS proceed with the dealings under extreme caution and opt for transparency for the sake of its citizens. They should explain how people’s data will be acquired, handled and protected and how they will make sure that Palantir does not abuse information. At the moment it does not engages with any personally identifiable data, and NHS assures Palantir cannot pass nor use data for its vested interests without their permission but chances are it can exploit them in the future.
Although these are crisis times backed by statistics, yet it doesn’t mean people shall throw their civil liberties out of the window. So the changes and adjustments must be temporary for things to go back to normalcy especially when privacy is now deemed as a fundamental right.