Your family member has been imprisoned, or murdered, by the Israeli Occupation Forces in the West Bank. You post a picture mourning them on your social media. Soon after, the same IOF forces turn up at your house to question, detain and arrest you, on the basis that you might soon “commit a crime” and you fit the “terrorist” profile.
This type of ‘predictive policing’ is one of the many services provided by the US tech company Palantir, which specialises in AI-powered military and surveillance technology and data analytics.
Palantir describes its military technologies as offering customers (which include the US military, ICE, the UK Ministry of Defence and the Israeli government) “mission-tested capabilities, forged in the field” to deliver “a tactical edge – by land, air, sea and space.”
So what does a company like this have to do with the NHS?
Decolonisation is not a metaphor: resources on Palestine
In November 2023, Palantir was awarded a £330 million contract to create a new data management system called the Federated Data Platform (FDP) that aims to provide ‘joined up’ NHS services.
This will involve their software, Foundry, handling unprecedented amounts of confidential patient data from across the NHS in one platform, which would usually only be held within the NHS by one hospital group. This would possibly be the largest population health dataset in the world.
While Palantir looks to profit from our public services, junior doctors are on strike for a 7th time this year. Wages for health workers have shrunk dramatically in real terms and quality of care has plummeted. The hostile environment towards migrants within the NHS is strengthening and the UK government is increasingly digitising the hostile environment.
In a context of grievous health injustices experienced by Palestinians, the creeping privatisation of the NHS, and the increasing state surveillance on minoritised communities in the UK, Palantir stands to profit from a massive public sector contract, providing it with unprecedented access to health data, whilst actively supporting the ongoing genocide.
Connecting struggles in the context of Palestine
Health Workers for a Free Palestine has formed with the intention to build solidarity and an anti-colonial health praxis. We are a collective that understands health justice as central to Palestinian liberation, and all our health as interconnected with each other and the land. Many of the same ideologies (such as white supremacy), companies (like Palantir) and state violence (like destruction of agriculture) which destroy health in Palestine are linked with other health injustices from Guatemala to the UK. We aim to draw these links in service of collective liberation.
From our vantage point as healthcare workers and others committed to health justice, we understand the systematic decimation of healthcare infrastructure to be a strategic tool of Israel’s military occupation and ongoing genocide. This has been witnessed first hand most horrifically by our colleagues in Gaza in the last 10 weeks. The World Health Organisation has reported 240 attacks on medical facilities by the Israeli military, including air strikes, occupation and besieging. Over 300 health workers have been killed.
The health of Palestinians has been systematically targeted by the occupation: for example, through their differential access to care compared to Israelis, otherwise known as medical apartheid; the ‘shoot to maim’ policy of the Israeli Occupation Forces; and physical and psychological torture of Palestinian prisoners including children.
Healthcare Workers for a Free Palestine is an explicitly political group. We target government and corporations in the imperial core that are complicit in the oppression of Palestinians. This comes from a commitment to go beyond a medical humanitarian and ‘international law’ lens alone, which too often removes the context of colonialism and is limited to demanding the provision of aid and the protection of health workers.
In the context of settler colonialism, we understand healthcare, and all care that sustains Palestinian life as part of an ecosystem of resistance to occupation. As written by Mary Turfah – “A doctor’s right to treat, unhindered, requires a people’s right to live. A people’s right to live requires they be seen as such…What good is a doctor without her people?”
Palantir, Israel and Occupation
The ongoing genocide, occupation and apartheid imposed on the Palestinian people by the Israeli settler colonial project would be impossible without a web of support from Western governments and multi-nationals. The Israeli colonial project wouldn’t be able to function without the support, investment and technology provided by an interconnected web of global companies set to profit off exploitation. Increasingly the heart of state repression in Palestine and across the world are AI, tech and surveillance firms.
We know this isn’t Palantir’s first time militarily supporting an occupation – they provided services to the US military for wartime operations inIraq andAfghanistan, including with drone strikes. They are also currently supporting the US to develop artificial intelligence software for war drones, in the Pentagon’s Project Maven.
Oppression is written onto the body through trauma, inflammation, malnutrition, chronic stress, psychological harm and innumerable other pathways. Knowing this, it is clear that colonialism in all its forms – from Zionist settler colonialism to American military occupation – is one of the greatest threats to health globally.
Palantir are very explicit about their political beliefs. They position themselves as only supporters of the “noble, endearing and potentially durable project of the West”. In November, Alex Karp, Palantir’s Chief Executive Officer, stated: “There is no such thing anymore of being on all sides. Palantir only supplies its products to Western allies. We’ve never supplied our products to enemies. We proudly support the US government.”
The Power of Military AI and Surveillance
The lines between Big Tech and the military are becoming increasingly blurred. This is the case particularly with the growth of a paradigm of ‘precision’ military activity, emerging in association with the Obama administration’s use of drone strikes, which in reality is neither precise nor used on legitimate targets.
In October, a video of Hadiya Nassar, born in 1944, was published on X (formerly Twitter). Injured from Israeli bombing but still smiling, she proudly announced herself as “older than Israel.” The video quickly went viral. Days later, she was killed not by a bomb, but by a sniper outside her home.
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The genocide in Gaza has included what appears to be precise tracking and targeting of journalists (over 68 have been killed), social media influencers, and legendary public figures such as Refaat Alareer. While we do not know the specific nature of Palantir’s support for Israel’s military operations, we know Palantir’s latest artificial intelligence tools can automatically identify buildings, vehicles and people in video footage.
As well as their predictive policing services, Palantir works hard to ensure that Israel’s colonial state has the best tech available. Palantir has operated their own research and development centre in Israel since 2013. They are also closely linked with Carbyne, with shared investors including Peter Thiel and Palantir employees on the board of advisors. Carbyne is an Israeli tech development firm developed by former Mossad and special Unit 8200 IDF members.
In September, Palantir launched their Government Web Services, boasting that “the capabilities that we were able to give the Israeli government…was incredible.” Much like other tactics of oppression, digital technology and surveillance tools developed and used by Israel are ‘field-tested’ on Palestinians and replicated across the world.
For example, Palantir’s predictive policing services are also used by US city police to target Black communities, creating “racist feedback loops.” Within a policing context, predictive policing technology of the kind supplied by Palantir is one element of a broader, concerning trend towards an expanding of the ‘pre-criminal’ space. Here, individuals and communities are criminalised based on a suspicion or anticipation of unlawful action that has not happened. In the UK, Prevent, known for ‘pre-criminalising’ Muslim communities in particular, is the clearest example of this.
Palantir and your health data
Palantir was first awarded NHS contracts during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Matt Hancock used ministerial power to bypass patient confidentiality rules.
Now, they have been awarded this £330 million contract to create a new data management system called the Federated Data Platform. As health workers we believe that if stewarded with the correct care, public oversight, and intention, technology and health data could have liberatory potential.
However, in reality, current AI medicine tools have been shown to entrench existing inequalities. Palantir has no interest in improving patient care. In January, Thiel described Britons’ affection for the NHS as “Stockholm syndrome” and urged the government to “rip the whole thing from the ground and start over”.
Details of what information Palantir will officially have access to are still unclear. NHS data has an estimated value of £10 billion per year. NHS leaders have repeatedly stated that the data handled by Palantir will be “pseudo anonymised” (an easily reversible process) and Palantir will not have access to “identifiable” patient information (without the permission of the NHS) or be able to “sell on” the data. Given their record of abuses, there is widespread concern that Palantir would not abide by any restrictions.
The opportunity to test and develop their software in the NHS, is a highly valuable resource in itself, which Palantir could profit significantly from. Writing about the risk of bio-surveillance and big tech, Amnesty explained why Palantir had offered services to the NHS for £1 at the height of COVID-19: “Even if they cannot walk away with direct patient records, they can walk away with the lucrative AI models built from those records, or at least make themselves indispensable partners for providing software to analyse the data which is the key that unlocks the value of the data.”
We at Healthcare Workers for a Free Palestine additionally believe there is a high risk of Palantir’s involvement disproportionately impacting minoritised communities, and that this deal expands the potential for state surveillance, which Palantir specialises in.
As health workers, we have seen how the hostile environment in the NHS has already eroded the accessibility of the NHS and the trust that patients have in it – and Palantir’s contract will only worsen this.
Palantir would have no shortage of skills to support increased state surveillance in the NHS. They have supported the US spy-agency NSA and GCHQ in software for mass surveillance of populations and were linked with Cambridge Analytica in their operations to collect data on Facebook users and interfere in the Brexit referendum. They supported the Trump administration to pursue,arrest and deport migrants, including in forcibly separating children from parents at the Mexican border.
The fact that Palantir is already embedded extensively within the UK government, including processing border and customs data and military decision making, makes the deal even more concerning. They have contracts with the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office, DHSC, the Cabinet Office, the police and other arms of the state. In this context, Palantir’s insistence that “only the UK government” will control what happens to the FDP’s unprecedented collection of data, is not particularly reassuring.
Surveillance as a threat to public health
Governments are investing more time and public money into Big Data. We are in a golden-era of public sector ‘digital transformation’ – the progressive digitalisation of government services, the vast increase of data generated on its population and use of analytics of this data.
What follows – at least in the liberal imaginary – is a contemporary technological utopia. Along with approaches such as machine-learning and artificial intelligence, what is promised is the holy grail: the ability to predict the future, to respond ahead of time, and to prevent harmful events, whether road traffic accidents or cancer.
The reality though is rather different. Instead, we see public data used for state surveillance and overlap with what Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism – the (usually non-consensual) commodification of personal data by corporations. These feed into a constellation of interrelated industries, where elements of public services align with private interests in the military, policing and medicine.
Palantir is very serious about all state operations, from military to public services, being run by their platforms. “We are working towards a future where all large institutions in the United States and its allies abroad are running significant segments of their operations, if not their operations as a whole, on Palantir,” Palantir’s CEO wrote. “Most other companies are targeting small segments of the market. We see and intend to capture the whole.”
And as the volume and density of data collected and the porousness between corporations stewarding this data and different government agencies increases, so the risk to our collective safety worsens. In the hands of companies like Palantir, the rise of AI, machine learning and Big Data serves to entrench the existing structures of domination, along lines of race, class and beyond – whether within the NHS or Palestine.
Health justice is global
Health Workers for a Free Palestine recognises that health across the world is shaped by interconnected processes, in particular colonialism and capitalism. Junior doctor strikes are borne out of the neoliberal dissemination of public services and creeping privatisation intent on enriching elites. These same elites, whether CEOs or politicians, also benefit from British colonialism and neocolonialism across the world.
Health justice, from the UK to Palestine, requires us to think of health as more than healthcare but the fundamentals of life, care and justice. To achieve this, we can use health justice as a lens to link our struggles, our experiences, our bodies, and our futures.