Deal with the devil
Lucy Aylmer, Deputy Editor, looks into the nature of NHS contracts during the pandemic
Dodgy contracts that posed a threat to privacy infringement were established between the NHS and various tech firms in response to the pandemic. One firm that has found itself in hot water was Plantir, a CIA-backed firm that has long been persistent in lobbying the UK and NHS officials, which this time successfully culminated over diner and watermelon cocktails. Clearly a contract courtship was taking shape.
According to academics, privacy ‘is the right not to be observed’. This right to privacy was sidestepped by Plantir whose contract with the NHS enabled exclusive access to patient medical data which was used beyond COVID-19 and deployed for Brexit and general business planning, according to reports.
Tech firms are being allowed to profit from sensitive medical data without the public having a say
Plantir specialises in analysing large volumes of data to ‘provide useful insights, patterns and connections’ which aimed to help the NHS efficiently respond and prepare for unexpected circumstances within the pandemic response unit. Initially, the contract between Plantir and the NHS was a short-term emergency partnership to help predict and deploy resources. However, this contract went far beyond its short-term proposition and as of December, was still firmly in place. It seems that not only did the contract extend its temporal boundaries but also its purpose too. This diversion of data went against Plantir’s initial contractual obligations and posed a threat to patient privacy because tech firms are being allowed to profit from sensitive medical data without the public having a say.
Privacy infringement is a dangerous ground to tread as it limits people’s free will through large companies influencing behavioural patterns and decision-making processes through harvesting sensitive patient data. Whilst data collection can be an effective way to respond to trends and patterns it must not override scrupulous checks and balances to ensure that patients understand where their data is being stored and how it is remodelled.
Indeed, Plantir was not the only company with significant involvement in lucrative data deals; Amazon was given access to healthcare information (excluding patient data) collected by the NHS. This was in order to allow Amazon Alexa to offer trusted health advice and ease pressure off GPs and pharmacists. However, this provided Amazon with access to ‘information on symptoms, causes and definitions of conditions’. From here, Amazon was able to create new products, services and applications to suit consumer requirements in order to enable a more focused and targeted shopping experience.
Is it right that multinational companies become the main beneficiaries of private data? Should big tech giants have so much access to our private data in the first place? Enabling access to large volumes of data can allow monopolies to formulate as Amazon has amalgamated greater power within the market through obtaining a stronger influence over consumer demands and preferences. Larger monopolies kill competition and sever free market influence that encourage diversity and innovation through healthy competition. Some argue that these kinds of monopolies are not sustainable and instead pander to corporate interests and prioritise billion-dollar companies at the expense of private patient data.
Whilst individuals should be weary of how their data is harvested and manipulated, data should be recognised as a vital asset, but one that should be used with caution
Worryingly, most people lack concern for how their data is collected, stored and sold to powerful multi-nationals. Indeed, a study found that more than two thirds of adults in the UK were unaware of how much data storage ‘they have in the cloud or on mobile devices’ and almost a third stated they were indifferent on where their personal data is stored. This research illustrates that people are unaware of the importance of their personal data. As such, these companies can exploit the general public’s naivety over data security in exchange for profitable contracts.
Whilst individuals should be weary of how their data is harvested and manipulated, data should be recognised as a vital asset, but one that should be used with caution. Companies and governments should not shy away from using data but instead, and rather fundamentally, they should inform people over where the data is going and how it is stored in order to protect privacy. Data has played an important role in the 21st century and has substantially contributed to the development of pioneering technology like artificial intelligence systems. This has seen improvements in business productivity and medical advancements too. In this sense, data should be nurtured not manipulated.
Clearly, the NHS knew it was in hot water all along. Open Democracy, the online news outlet decided to sue the British government’s NHS data deal with Plantir and were victorious. They won their lawsuit, and the NHS suspended their contract with Plantir. This is just the start of an uphill battle against big data and the rise of monopolising tech giants.