Seeing stones: pandemic reveals Palantir's troubling reach in Europe

Guardian Technology 02 Apr 2021 09:11

The 24 March, 2020 will be remembered by some for the news that Prince Charles tested positive for Covid and was isolating in Scotland. In Athens it was memorable as the day the traffic went silent. Twenty-four hours into a hard lockdown, Greeks were acclimatising to a new reality in which they had to send an SMS to the government in order to leave the house. As well as millions of text messages, the Greek government faced extraordinary dilemmas. The European Union’s most vulnerable economy, its oldest population along with Italy, and one of its weakest health systems faced the first wave of a pandemic that overwhelmed richer countries with fewer pensioners and stronger health provision. The carnage in Italy loomed large across the Adriatic.

One Greek who did go into the office that day was Kyriakos Pierrakakis, the minister for digital transformation, whose signature was inked in blue on an agreement with the US technology company, Palantir. The deal, which would not be revealed to the public for another nine months, gave one of the world’s most controversial tech companies access to vast amounts of personal data while offering its software to help Greece weather the Covid storm. The zero-cost agreement was not registered on the public procurement system, neither did the Greek government carry out a data impact assessment – the mandated check to see whether an agreement might violate privacy laws.

The Greek government has declined to say how it was introduced to Palantir. But there were senior-level links between Palantir, the Trump administration and the Greek government. The US ambassador to Greece, Geoffrey Pyatt, has spoken publicly of the contacts between Pierrakakis and Michael Kratsios, a Greek-American and chief technology adviser to then-president, Donald Trump. Kratsios joined the White House from a role as chief of staff to Peter Thiel, the billionaire Silicon Valley tech investor and founder of Palantir.

The Greek government has denied sharing patient data with Palantir, claiming that the software was used to give the prime minister a dashboard summarising key data during the pandemic. However, the contract, seen by the Guardian, specifically refers to categories of data that can be processed and includes personal data. It also includes a clause that has come to be known as an “improvement clause”. These clauses, identified in the rare examples of Palantir contracts released in answer to freedom of information requests, have been studied by Privacy International, a privacy watchdog in the UK. “The improvement clauses in Palantir’s contracts, together with the lack of transparency, are concerning because it enables Palantir to improve its products based on its customers’ use of the Palantir products,” said Privacy International’s Caitlin Bishop.

Rumours over Palantir’s possible involvement [with the CIA] in the operation to find Osama bin Laden have been met with coy non-denials.

In June 2020, In ‘t Veld sent detailed questions to the commission and published her concerns in a blogpost headlined: “Palantir is not our friend”. The commission took eight months to give even partial answers but the company emailed In ‘t Veld three days after she went public with her questions, offering a meeting. She talked to them but questions why the company felt the need to contact “an obnoxious MEP” to reassure her.

“There’s something that doesn’t add up here between the circumventing of procurement practices, meetings at the highest level of government,” said In ‘t Veld, “there’s a lot more beneath the surface than a simple software company.”

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