In the last week, staff at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) started logging into a new web app. It promises to help them watch where COVID-19 is spreading and checks how well equipped hospitals are to deal with the spike in cases of the fatal virus, according to two sources familiar with the work. According to those sources, it was built by Palantir, a $20 billion-valued big data company whose data harvesting work for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has provoked criticism from human rights groups.
With the CDC project, it’s avoiding any such controversy, partly because it isn’t ingesting personally-identifiable information, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivities of the government contract. Instead, the sources said the tech, based on its big data gathering and analysis technology called Palantir Foundry, takes in a range of anonymized data from U.S. hospitals and healthcare agencies, including lab test results, emergency department statuses, bed capacity and ventilator supply. Palantir is also developing models for the outbreak of the virus to help CDC predict where resources are required, they added.
“In the U.S. we are continuing to work closely with our partners at HHS, including CDC, and across the government agencies to ensure they have the most comprehensive, accurate and timely view of information as the COVID-19 response effort evolves,” a Palantir spokesperson said.
The CDC hadn’t responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.
Such tech would give the CDC a clear understanding of what’s happening in any given U.S. geography, whether at state, county or city level, at a single moment in time. The information would help the CDC decide where to allocate resources, such as masks and ventilators, one source said. That could prove vital given the rush to meet a pervasive and urgent need for ventilators, in particular.
Palantir is one of several tech companies, including Google and Oracle, flexing their prowess in data gathering and analysis in efforts to stem the coronavirus. Some ideas, such as using locations from mobile phones to track movements of people, have prompted concerns that once the crisis ebbs, increased surveillance will be hard to unwind. Palantir’s tool does not use any personally-identifiable data at this point, but could do in the future, said one of the sources.
Similar to Palantir’s U.K. work
The app, which CDC staff started to use in the last few days, is hosted by Amazon Web Services as part of a partnership for the CDC project, one of the sources said. Palantir has long used the cloud giant for back-end infrastructure.
The U.S. data gathering app looks a lot like a project revealed in the U.K. last week, where reports indicated Palantir was also providing its Foundry platform, alongside Amazon Web Services and Microsoft, to assist the National Health Service (NHS) in the coronavirus crisis.
Palantir’s Foundry will help the NHS determine current occupancy levels at hospitals, down to the number and type of beds, as well as the capacity of accident and emergency, departments and waiting times, wrote the U.K. government late last week. The tool is also gathering details of the lengths of stay for coronavirus patients, the U.K. project coordinators said.
“Palantir is a data processor, not a data controller, and cannot pass on or use the data for any wider purpose without the permission of NHS England,” it added.
The response to Palantir’s involvement in the U.K. has been cautious in light of its previous surveillance work, notably its production of tools that helped ICE target undocumented immigrants in America. It has close ties to U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies, including the CIA, an investor via the agency’s In-Q-Tel venture fund, and was credited with helping find Osama Bin Laden before his killing. The company was founded by a social theory Ph.D. Alex Karp, a long-time associate of Palantir investor Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist who was also an early backer of Facebook.
It’s unclear just how much Palantir will make from the work. According to public records, the most recent contract signed by Palantir with the CDC was in early February for $675,000 for unspecified hardware and software license renewals. Palantir also signed a contract for just $28,000 with the Food and Drug Administration late last month for use of the Palantir Gotham tool, which is typically used to help government agencies find criminals or criminal groups within masses of data.
The app only launched in the last week, though work on the coronavirus project with CDC started two weeks ago, a source with knowledge of the work said. Palantir is also working with Health and Human Services and other federal government customers, they added.
I’m associate editor for Forbes, covering security, surveillance and privacy. I’ve been breaking news and writing features on these topics for major publications since 2010. As a freelancer, I worked for The Guardian, Vice Motherboard, Wired and BBC.com, amongst many others. I was named BT Security Journalist of the year in 2012 and 2013 for a range of exclusive articles, and in 2014 was handed Best News Story for a feature on US government harassment of security professionals. I like to hear from hackers who are breaking things for either fun or profit and researchers who’ve uncovered nasty things on the web. Tip me on Signal at 447837496820. I use WhatsApp and Treema too. Or
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