Palantir: The UK Wants a Silver Bullet

March 11, 2024

green-dino_thumb_thumb_thumbThis essay is the work of a dumb dinobaby. No smart software required.

The UK is an interesting nation state. On one hand, one has upmarket, high-class activities taking place not too far from the squatters in Bristol. Fancy lingo, nifty arguments (Here, here!) match up nicely with some wonky computer decisions. The British government seems to have a keen interest in finding silver bullets; that is, solutions which will make problems go away. How did that work for the postal service?

I read “Health Data – It Isn’t Just Palantir or Bust,” written by lawyer, pundit, novelist, and wizard Cory Doctorow. The essay focuses on a tender offer captured by Palantir Technologies. The idea is that the British National Health Service has lots of data. The NHS has done some wild and crazy things to make those exposed to the NHS safer. Sorry, I can’t explain one taxonomy-centric project which went exactly nowhere despite the press releases generated by the vendors, speeches, presentations, and assurances that, by gad, these health data will be managed. Yeah, and Bristol’s nasty areas will be fixed up soon.


The British government professional is struggling with software that was described as a single solution. Thanks, MSFT Copilot. How is your security perimeter working today? Oh, that’s too bad. Good enough.

What is interesting about the write up is not the somewhat repetitive retelling of the NHS’ computer challenges. I want to highlight the comments from the lawyer – novelist about the American intelware outfit Palantir Technologies. What do we learn about Palantir?

Here the first quote from the essay:

But handing it all over to companies like Palantir isn’t the only option

The idea that a person munching on fish and chips in Swindon will know about Palantir is effectively zero. But it is clear that “like Palantir” suggests something interesting, maybe fascinating.

Here’s another reference to Palantir:

Even more bizarre are the plans to flog NHS data to foreign military surveillance giants like Palantir, with the promise that anonymization will somehow keep Britons safe from a company that is literally named after an evil, all-seeing magic talisman employed by the principal villain of Lord of the Rings (“Sauron, are we the baddies?”).

The word choice is painting a picture of an American intelware company which does focus on conveying a negative message; for instance, the words safe, evil, all seeing, villain, baddies, etc. What’s going on?

The British Medical Association and the conference of England LMC Representatives have endorsed OpenSAFELY and condemned Palantir. The idea that we must either let Palantir make off with every Briton’s most intimate health secrets or doom millions to suffer and die of preventable illness is a provably false choice.

It seems that the American company is known to the BMA and an NGO have figured out Palantir is a bit of a sticky wicket.

Several observations:

  1. My view is that Palantir promised a silver bullet to solve some of the NHS data challenges. The British government accepted the argument, so full steam ahead. Thus, the problem, I would suggest, is the procurement process
  2. The agenda in the write up is to associate Palantir with some relatively negative concepts. Is this fair? Probably not but it is typical of certain “real” analysts and journalists to mix up complex issues in order to create doubt about vendors of specialized software. These outfits are not perfect, but their products are a response to quite difficult problems.
  3. I think the write up is a mash up of anger about tender offers, the ineptitude of British government computer skills, the use of cross correlation as a symbol of Satan, and a social outrage about the Britain which is versus what some wish it were.

Net net: Will Palantir change because of this negative characterization of its products and services? Nope. Will the NHS change? Are you kidding me, of course not. Will the British government’s quest for silver bullet solutions stop? Let’s tackle this last question this way: “Why not write it in a snail mail letter and drop it in the post?”

Intelware is just so versatile at least in the marketing collateral.

Stephen E Arnold, March 11, 2024


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