Palantir, the surveillance firm founded by conservative billionaire Peter Thiel, has landed a contract with the feds to build a database tracking the spread of the novel coronavirus around the country, according to the Daily Beast.
Sources told the publication that Palantir data products will be primary, or even core, to a Health and Human Services project called Protect Now and will pull data from federal, state, and local governments, as well as universities and medical facilities. The purpose of the project is to “mitigate and prevent spread” of the virus, an HHS spokesperson told the site. Palantir’s involvement is likely to raise eyebrows, as Thiel is both its chairman and a prominent Donald Trump supporter who has pledged to support the president’s re-election campaign. He also reportedly was involved in pushing Facebook, where he holds a board seat, to allow political lies in ads, even setting up a meeting between Mark Zuckerberg and Trump at the White House. (Disclosure: Thiel secretly bankrolled a lawsuit that bankrupted Gizmodo’s former parent company, Gawker Media.)
Palantir has contracts with federal law enforcement agencies, most notoriously Immigration and Customs Enforcement, where the company has used its digital profiling tools to enable raids of immigrant communities. It has also helped the National Security Agency with espionage, has contracts with the Pentagon to provide real-time maps and analytics to soldiers in the field, and provided backend support for NYC Office of Special Enforcement crackdowns.
While HHS and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention have previously been reported to have contracts with Palantir, the Daily Beast reported the Protect Now platform is already being used to brief White House coronavirus task force members like coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx and is slated to be announced this week. Trump himself relies on Birx’s data as part of his ominous plan to end coronavirus shutdowns across the country as soon as possible, sources told the site. A cornerstone of the project is reportedly Palantir’s Foundry platform, which was likely the software licensed in those prior projects, though HHS also signed a separate, $US17.3 ($27) million contract for a different tool called Gotham on April 10, the Daily Beast reported.
In a statement to the Daily Beast, an HHS spokesperson said the Protect Now platform became operational on April 10 and draws from 187 data sources. That set includes everything from the distribution of medical supplies and demographics to testing data and reports from emergency rooms.
“We are using the data aggregated…to paint a picture for the Task Force, and state and local leaders to show the impact of their strategic decisions,” the spokesperson told the site. “For instance, if there are a number of cases concentrated at a hospital next to an airport and a mass transit stop, we can build a predictive model using a transmission chain to predict how quickly the disease will spread taking into account these factors.”
According to the Wall Street Journal, Palantir data predicted the potential for the coronavirus to become a worldwide crisis earlier this year—something that experts in infectious diseases and public health also saw coming. It also already has pandemic modelling contracts in over a dozen foreign countries, including with the UK’s National Health Service, the Greek government, and some states in Germany. However, the paper reported that Palantir was facing pressure from investors to start turning a profit even as some of its wealthiest corporate clients were cutting back due to pandemic losses, resulting in plans for deep cost-cutting and a potential delay to its initial public offering. Thiel sold some of his stake in the company at below its $US20 ($32) billion valuation, sources told the Journal.