Peter Thiel’s controversial Palantir built coronavirus tracking tool for Trump admin

Palantir, an analytics company co-founded by Trump ally Peter Thiel, is supporting the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in building a tool to track the spread of the coronavirus, according to a new report from The Daily Beast.

The tool, which is reportedly called HHS Protect Now, is already up and running as of April 10th and it helps officials compile reports on the coronavirus’ spread through the US by collecting data from state and local governments, healthcare institutions, and colleges. It is unclear what exactly this data is, where it comes from, or how it’s being used. It’s also unclear if Palantir is the sole technology provider of the tool, or if other partners are involved.

Reports earlier this month first surfaced Palantir’s involvement with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the UK’s National Health Service regarding coronavirus tracking software and other assistance in combating the global pandemic. This would appear to be an extension of that work; Palantir has at least two active contracts with HHS, one signed in January and the other less than two weeks ago.

Here’s how The Daily Beast describes the initiative, based on sources with knowledge of the project and confirmation from HHS itself:

The HHS Protect Now platform, which is set to be unveiled later this week, pulls data from across the federal government, state and local governments, healthcare facilities, and colleges, to help administration officials determine how to “mitigate and prevent spread” of the coronavirus, according to a spokesperson for the department.

And here’s an at least partial description of the kind of data we’re talking about here:

HHS said it has 187 data sets integrated into the platform, with inputs that include hospital capacity and inventories, supply chain data from the government and industry, diagnostic and geographic testing data, demographic statistics, state policy actions, and coronavirus and flu-like emergency department data. The spokesperson also said HHS was relying on “private sector partner contributions of data.”

“We are using the data aggregated… to paint a picture for the Task Force, and state and local leaders to show the impact of their strategic decisions,” the HHS spokesperson told The Daily Beast in a statement. “For instance, if there are a number of cases concentrated at a hospital next to an airport and a mass transit stop, we can build a predictive model using a transmission chain to predict how quickly the disease will spread taking into account these factors.”

Palantir is known best for its surveillance, predictive, and analytic work with the US government and state and local law enforcement, as well as services provided to the private sector in areas like finance and healthcare. It’s controversial in part because it has provided profiling tools to the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and because it generally operates with extreme secrecy and with little oversight regarding the tools and data it provides to military operations, governments, and hedge funds.

For instance, the company clandestinely provided predictive policing software to the city of New Orleans. The city only terminated the contract after six years operating in secrecy once Mid American Herald and other news organizations unearthed the partnership and highlighted the privacy and civil rights concerns involved.

The name itself, a nod to the magical artifact in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy that takes its name from the Elvish word for “all-seeing,” speaks to the company’s surveillance ambitions and Thiel’s willingness to align them with political causes he supports.

In this case, it appears Thiel’s connections to Trump — the infamous investor is a well-known conservative in liberal-leaning Silicon Valley and supported Trump’s election in 2016 — may have helped influence Palantir’s involvement with HHS Protect Now. (Thiel has also pledged to support Trump’s reelection, and he has reportedly used his influence at Facebook, where he was the company’s first angel investor and remains on its board of directors, to help Trump with regard to oversight and moderation of political ads.)

HHS Protect Now was intended to become the “the single source for testing data by April 20th,” according to an internal Trump administration document obtained by The Daily Beast, though it’s unclear if that’s now true. Currently, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, is making use of data the tool aggregates, and that data and Birx’s presentations are factors for how Trump and his administration plan to reopen parts of the country, The Daily Beast reports.

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