UK govt publishes contracts granting Amazon, Microsoft, Google and AI firms access to COVID-19 health data

UK government has published the contracts it holds with private tech firms and the NHS for the creation of a COVID-19 data store, just days after campaigners fired legal shots over a lack of transparency.

Available on the openDemocracy website, the contracts describe how the arrangements between the NHS and Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and AI firms Faculty and Palantir (which subcontracts to AWS) will operate.

Campaign groups Foxglove and openDemocracy, which brought the action, said that the documents show the tech firms were set to build data models for commercial purposes from NHS training data before being challenged.

The contracts show that the companies involved, including Faculty and Palantir, were originally granted intellectual property rights (including the creation of databases), and were allowed to train their models and profit off their unprecedented access to NHS data

“Significantly, the contracts show that the terms of at least one of the deals – AI firm Faculty – were changed after initial demands for transparency under the Freedom of Information Act,” the groups said.

“The contracts show that the companies involved, including Faculty and Palantir, were originally granted intellectual property rights (including the creation of databases), and were allowed to train their models and profit off their unprecedented access to NHS data.”

However, the government has not released a subsequent contract which it claimed solved the problem of data being exploited for private sector gain.

“openDemocracy and Foxglove are demanding its immediate release,” the pair said today.

In May, a broad-based campaign group wrote to UK health secretary Matt Hancock calling for greater openness in the government’s embrace of private-sector tech companies contracted to provide a data store and dashboards as part of the NHS response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The group – including Liberty, openDemocracy, Foxglove and Privacy International – said promises of openness about the role of multiple private-sector tech firms in handling the health data of millions of UK citizens had not been fulfilled.

In March, the government said it would develop a platform designed to provide “secure, reliable and timely data” to national organisations charged with coordinating the response to the pandemic.

Amazon, Google and Microsoft were on the list of contracted companies, along with Palantir Technologies UK, a subsidy of Peter Thiel’s controversial analytics firm, and the London AI company Faculty, which worked on the Vote Leave Brexit referendum campaign.

openDemocracy said that it hopes publishing the contracts would facilitate expert analysis of them and support public debate.

In a separate case, campaigner the Open Rights Group has instructed lawyers to lodge a complaint with the UK’s data watchdog over the rollout of the Test and Trace system because it says it breaches the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

The Department of Health and Social Care has been contacted for a statement. ®

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