5 May 2020

US tech firm Palantir held talks with Privacy Commissioner

7:51 am on 5 May 2020

US data firm Palantir, which is is providing numerous governments with software for tracking Covid-19, has been in talks with the Privacy Commissioner.

Peter Thiel.

Palantir is co-owned by Silicon Valley billionaire and New Zealand citizen Peter Thiel. Photo: AFP

Palantir has pitched its pandemic-tracking software to the Ministry of Health.

Civil liberties groups have expressed concerns about the American company's links to spy and defence agencies, including in New Zealand.

In some cases it has reportedly provided software to governments for free.

In the US and UK and Europe, governments are giving Palantir public health information it is processing to help predict where there will be new outbreaks and where resources will be needed.

The data is reportedly anonymised but Palantir's expertise in surveillance means the contracts are still proving controversial.

The Silicon valley firm, co-owned by New Zealand citizen and US billionaire Peter Thiel, pitched software to the Health Ministry in mid-March.

The firm has subsequently met twice with the Privacy Commissioner or his staff, most recently last Friday, RNZ inquiries have found.

The Ministry of Health said it had not referred the American company on to any other agency. Last month it said it had no plans to use the firm's services on Covid-19.

The office of the commissioner said the first video meeting, on 23 April, between Commissioner John Edwards, two staffers and Palantir, was at the firm's instigation.

Palantir had got in touch on 17 April seeking a meeting which it told the office was 'to let you know who we are (and who we aren't), and how we think about data privacy and security', the office said in a statement.

At the second video meeting, on 1 May, with two staff at the Privacy Commissioner's office, Palantir offered a more specific briefing on one of its engagements in New Zealand, the office said.

"Palantir has clients in New Zealand. It gave us some information about one project with one of those clients that we had been aware of from that client."

This was not related to Covid-19 nor the Ministry of Health, it said.

The Defence Force still uses Palantir software at its headquarters' Communication and Information Systems Branch, according to its latest annual review for 2018-19 .

Bloomberg has reported that Palantir has offered its Covid-19 software for free to governments.

Concerns remain in other countries around invasiveness of Covid-19 technology, where data harvested will be stored and for how long - both around surveillance with respect to contact tracing and regarding aggregated, anonymised but valuable health data which Palantir is said to be using.

Palantir has been approached for comment.

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