Government releases significant COVID data sharing contracts

On the 5th June, the government released its data sharing contracts with private tech firms, Amazon, Microsoft, Google as well as AI firms Faculty and Palantir. 

The contracts were released to openDemocracy and tech justice firm Foxglove and reveal details of the transfer of personal health information of NHS users to the aforementioned tech firms. 

The contracts have revealed that the firm Faculty is being paid in excess of £1million to provide AI services to the NHS. Also, Faculty and Palantir who are two companies involved in the NHS datastore project were originally granted intellectual property rights. 

The confidentiality and consultancy agreement between the government and Google is for Google to provide ‘free of charge’ support to assist the NHS, NHSX and PHE. It outlines that Google is ‘providing support purely as a service to the public’ and ‘not as a gift to any individual government official.’ The project is for Google to provide ‘technical, advisory and other support’ in tackling Covid-19.  

The contract became effective as of 1st March 2020 and termination of the contract can be administered with 1 week notice from either party which perhaps indicates that the agreement could be quickly dissolved following the dissipation of the Covid-19 crisis. 

Section 5 of the agreement details terms relating to data protection; ‘NHSX will not provide Google with any personal data. The parties acknowledge and agree that it is not their intention to collect, access, share, use or otherwise process and personal data.’ 

Comparatively, the Google agreement is short on detail with a 4-page outline, whereas the Faculty, Palantir and Microsoft agreements are all in excess of 30 pages.  

The Faculty agreement provides detail into how its AI service will make a difference to health and care. It outlines that it will use a ‘broad range of techniques’ which include inductive logic programming, robotic process automation, natural language processing, computer vision, neural networks and distributed AI. The company say that ‘significant opportunities’ will be created through the use of the above techniques. 

The ‘significant opportunities’ are stated as improving productivity, improving care, saving lives, personalising NHS screening and treatments for cancer, eye disease and freeing up staff time. 

Faculty acknowledge the ethical and safety concerns in implementing AI into healthcare systems; to this end, faculty state that they ‘will align to the core founding principles of the NHS addressing transparency, safety, privacy, explicability and bias.’ 

In addition to the above, Faculty have stated its support for NHSX in creating a national database of chest X-ray and CT images to use with its automated analysis technology in response to Covid-19. 

There is also a lengthy protection of information and buyer data clause written into the contract. 

A Faculty spokesperson said: (The company) “asked for its contract to be amended to make clear that it will derive no commercial benefit from any software, including trained machine learning models, developed during the course of the project and that the use of the IP is under the sole control of the NHS.” 

The data analysis firm Palantir has in its agreement to supply the G-Cloud Services along with ‘any Additional Services’ under the terms of the contract. The details of the services Palantir is specifically providing to the UK Government are inaccessible due to the way the agreement has been made available. It is known however, that the contract covers the provision of its Foundry data management platform services, beginning on the 12th March and ending on the 11th June. 

The company is charging just £1 or $1.27 for providing its services. 

A clause in the Palantir contract states that any software developed must be suitable for publication as open source and must provide the converted format unless otherwise agreed. This could indicate that software developed by Palantir will continue to be used through modifications post-Covid-19. 

As with the other agreements, a data privacy clause has been written in. 

Previously, an NHS blog stated that the datastore project would ensure privacy; ‘essential data governance procedures and established principles of openness and transparency remain at the core of everything we do.’ It continues, ‘the data collected will only be used for Covid-19; only relevant information will be collected.’ 

‘Once the public health emergency situation has ended, data will either be destroyed or returned in line with the law and the strict contractual agreements that are in place between the NHS and partners.’ 

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