Palantir Technologies signs contract with Pope’s hospital

After Pope Francis's calls for an ethical use of artificial intelligence, it comes as a surprise that top Italian hospital Policlinico Gemelli, often known as the Pope’s hospital, has recently signed a contract with Palantir, a US company often in the news for its military work including in Ukraine, and for its cooperation with the Trump administration's merciless deportations of migrants.

2 Ottobre 2023

It has been defined as “one of tech’s most secretive companies”. Originally funded by In-Q-Tel, the CIA capital venture firm which finances the tech companies the U.S. intelligence community considers strategic for their mission, it has been awarded contracts by the Pentagon, intelligence services and Western police forces.

Its name is “Palantir”, like the seeing stones in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, a book beloved by Giorgia Meloni and the Italian right. Palantir’s crystal ball for acquiring intelligence consists of powerful software capable of analyzing billions of data points – an amount no human being could analyze in an entire lifetime – to detect hidden connections and extract knowledge and intelligence, be it to identify an alleged terrorist hidden like a needle in the proverbial haystack in Afghanistan, or Russian soldiers and tanks to strike in Ukraine, or the ‘undocumented migrants’ ruthlessly targeted by ICE, the U.S. Immigration and Customs law enforcement agency, especially during the Trump Administration.

It comes as a surprise to learn that the “Pope’s hospital”, the Gemelli Polyclinic, is the first Italian medical institution to establish a partnership with Palantir for the stated goal of exploiting the power of data and artificial intelligence in medical research. The agreement is dated early September, and it surprises because Pope Francis has been one of the most vocal among world leaders in calling for an ethical use of artificial intelligence. Indeed, in 2020 the Pontifical Academy for Life signed the “Rome Call for AI Ethics”.

News of the partnership between Gemelli and the American tech firm arrives in the same weeks that see Palantir a frontrunner in the bid for a contract worth 480 million pounds with the NHS – England’s publicly funded healthcare system – to build a massive database, called the “Federated Data Platform” (FDP), consisting of all patient data, a treasure worth an estimated 9.6 billion a year.

Palantir’s entry into the public healthcare system has generated debate over the last three years, however, ever since 2020 when the US firm signed a one-pound contract with the NHS to assist Boris Johnson’s right-wing government fight Covid.

Its tiptoeing arrival in the NHS, first with a one-pound contract and then a 23 million one, has fueled criticism and opposition, embodied in campaigns like “No Palantir in our NHS”, which has asserted: “Palantir is a US tech and security corporation with a terrible track record. They help governments, intelligence agencies, and border forces to spy on innocent citizens and target minorities and the poor. We don’t trust them with our health data, and we don’t trust them to respect the values of our NHS”.

Palantir’s arrival in English health has unleashed criticism not only for its work with intelligence services and law enforcement agencies deporting migrants, but also for its perceived risk of privatization of the public healthcare service. “Tech bosses know the real prize is privatizing the NHS’s future”, titled the progressive magazine The New Statesman, in an article on Palantir and the Federated Data Platform, explaining that “By entrusting the data engineering underpinning NHS decision-making to a single company, ministers would be exposing the health service to a kind of risk it has not faced before”.

The contract? Gemelli has not answered, Palantir invokes confidentiality

The partnership between Gemelli and Palantir is specifically with the “Gemelli Generator” research center, directed by professor Vincenzo Valentini. All we know for now is that the partnership involves use of Palantir’s “Foundry” platform, which thanks to the power of data and artificial intelligence promises to improve research aimed at developing new drugs and improving patient care.

Professor Valentini has not provided specific, comprehensive answers to our questions on the partnership with Palantir, but he has provided a series of information and ruled out the risk of Palantir potentially accessing extremely sensitive data such as patient data. “From an operational point of view”, he wrote in his reply to Il Fatto Quotidiano, “the projects are carried out by the researchers in our research center, and Palantir employees as well as other tech partners are not allowed to conduct work on the platform, apart from software updates, training and technical assistance in case of malfunction. The system administrator function is conducted by the [Gemelli] Generator’s personnel”.

Professor Valentini has also ruled out that the Palantir contract could result in the transfer of patient data to the United States, where it would not enjoy the protection afforded by the European Union General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). “Palantir’s software is installed at the AWS [Amazon Web Services] center in Milan and the contract between Palantir Technologies and Policlinico Gemelli does not permit any data transfer and/or processing in the United States, either now or in the future”.

Fatto Quotidiano reached Palantir with questions and Palantir ruled out these risks as well: “Customers control all data access”, the firm declared.

Professor Valentini has not responded to our request for a copy of the contract between Policlinico Gemelli and Palantir, whereas Palantir has replied: “Unfortunately, we are not in a position to provide copies of this contract for customer confidentiality reasons”.

In Britain, the Open Democracy media platform was ultimately forced to challenge the UK government via legal channels to obtain a copy of the 1-pound contract with Palantir. Represented by the Foxglove Legal firm, Open Democracy obtained the document just a few hours before the media was due to issue proceedings in court.

In his reply to Fatto Quotidiano, professor Vincenzo Valentini characterizes the amount of research that will be conducted on the Foundry platform as “marginal” compared to the total amount conducted by his center. So here too, as with the first contract between Palantir and NHS, it seems that Palantir has entered the Italian healthcare system on tiptoe, through a top-level institution like Gemelli. But in view of Gemelli’s prestigious standing, will this contract pave the way to new ones?

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