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Palantir’s New ‘Driving Thrust’: Predicting Coronavirus Outbreaks
More than a dozen countries are using data-mining software provided byPalantir Technologies Inc. for coronavirus response efforts. The Silicon Valley company said its technology is helping officials predict the locations of outbreaks and determine where to deploy medical staff and supplies, but the initiative is testing governments’ ability to balance privacy with public health.
In the last week, a dozen governments joined the U.S. and U.K. in adopting Palantir software for their fights against the deadly virus, according to people familiar with the projects. They include agencies in Austria, Canada, Greece and Spain, said the people, who asked not to be identified because they weren’t authorized to discuss the work publicly.
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Palantir is making a version of the company’s software called Foundry available for free to governments and international organizations involved in the Covid-19 response, the company said in its most extensive remarks about the coronavirus to date. Terms of each agreement is slightly different, but the company said it intends to provide the tools for as long as they’re needed to combat the virus, which one Palantir executive “optimistically” pegged at about six months. Palantir is asking corporate customers to continue paying, even as many turn their attention to projects related to the virus or its economic impact.
“Our company as a whole is oriented around the response to Covid, not just in the U.S. but around the world,” Shyam Sankar, the company’s president, said in an emailed statement. “This is the driving thrust of our company.”
Palantir is accustomed to global crises. Peter Thiel helped start the business in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Governments and companies use Palantir’s software to integrate far-flung data sets into a single view and analyze the information. The U.S. Health and Human Services Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been customers for years, with the CDC relying on it to study and mitigate health crises, including food contagions and vaping. (Representatives for the Health Department and CDC didn’t respond to requests for comment.) Palantir is more well-known for work with the U.S. Defense Department and law enforcement, whose use of the technology for surveillance operations has routinely raised concerns over privacy and potential abuses of power.
Last month, Palantir helped advise federal authorities in the U.S. and hundreds of hospitals and clinics on their data-sharing agreements, said Courtney Bowman, who oversees Palantir’s privacy and civil liberties engineering team. The result is a vast, real-time view of infections as more Americans gain access to testing. Patient information, including gender, age, health status and Zip code are included, but personal details are stripped out, with limits on how long the data can be retained and other privacy-minded restrictions, Bowman said in a phone interview. “We are moving quickly and thoughtfully,” he said.
Some parts of the world, including the European Union, have strict rules governing data collection and retention. Yet, some officials are willing to test the bounds of privacy protections in the name of combating the virus. Some EU countries are seeking to quickly gather reams of data so health officials can track the spread and then map which resources they will likely need. Precise location data isn’t currently used, but a Palantir spokeswoman said the company has had conversations with customers who are considering it. Privacy activists are warning countries against compromising the privacy of their citizens.
Authorities from France, Germany and Switzerland arein talks to sign on to Palantir’s virus program, Bloomberg reported Wednesday. Dozens of other governments across Asia and Latin America have expressed interest, people familiar with the discussions now say. “We have deployed in over a dozen countries since the Covid-19 crisis started; we are in conversation with several dozen more and are talking to everyone we can,” said Josh Harris, a Palantir executive vice president.
Over the last month, the software has been used to answer different questions depending on the stage of a country’s crisis. When officials see the first reports of people exhibiting symptoms of the disease, the tool presents case studies from affected locales. As more tests become available, the focus turns to results of confirmed cases. Some of the hardest-hit countries in Europe are now using it to decide where to send doctors, masks, ventilators and other equipment, Palantir said.
Today, in the U.S., the CDC is using public health information and corporate data to conduct analysis in Palantir’s software, the company said. The CDC is looking at emerging hot spots, such as Chicago and New Orleans, for estimates on infection rates and to decide which local resources are needed. In New York, health officials are using Palantir to see where hospital beds are available in the region, rather than making calls to neighboring hospitals to find one able to handle a surge in patients, the company said.
Palantir said all of its 2,500 employees are working on coronavirus-related projects in some form, with most able to avoid going into offices. Employees assisting health officials in Washington, D.C., are wearing masks and getting their temperatures taken before entering worksites.