WASHINGTON, D.C. – This morning, new reporting in the Daily Beast detailed how the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) instructed states to give “daily” updates on ventilator availability during the COVID-19 crisis to Palantir, the defense contracting company founded by Trump ally Peter Thiel.
After the company clinched a multi-million dollar deal with the Trump administration to provide data management software to the nation’s health department, internal emails obtained by Accountable.US show FEMA told states to give information on ventilator availability directly to Palantir — potentially arming the private data-mining company with invaluable health information amid an information-rich crisis. A FEMA official told the Daily Beast that “all 50 states” provided ventilator information to Palantir.
The situation was revealed through internal emails procured through Accountable.US’s 50 States Open Records Project — an effort to obtain information from all 50 states as well as Washington, D.C., Guam, and American Samoa on the administration’s mismanaged and opaque COVID-19 response.
You can sign up on the group’s website to be the first to know when new records are shared.
“If they’re accessing these rich data sets directly from our public health infrastructure, will they exploit that to add economic value to their core data sets? If their AI learns how to infer and predict the patterns of the disease from our public data, then that becomes a hugely lucrative advantage for a private company, especially now when everyone, in every business sector, wants to know where COVID is going and how hard it’s going to hit,” said Shoshana Zuboff, the author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and a professor emerita at Harvard Business School.
But an email sent by FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor on April 5 to his regional administrators showed Palantir directly receives ventilator information—information necessary for mitigating the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak that has killed over 92,000 Americans since February.
“The specific ventilator information necessary for modeling and projections are: 1. total ventilators that can be used for COVID-19 patients; 2. total ventilators available for COVID-19 patients; and 3. total ventilators in use,” Gaynor wrote. Receiving that data is necessary “to paint the national picture for critical decisions that will need to be made in this response.”
Gaynor asked the administrators to get U.S. states and territories to provide the data “daily with updates for total ventilators” to both an HHS official and a COVID-specific Palantir email address.
Through a spokesperson, FEMA confirmed the data provision to Palantir and said “all 50 states have provided and continue to provide” ventilator information.
Oregon’s health authority confirmed “we’ve been submitting ventilator data on a daily basis to HHS and Palantir as requested by HHS,” according to spokesperson Philip Schmidt. “The submission contains no personal health information. It’s statewide counts of ventilators and the total number of patients on ventilators for COVID statewide, and which hospitals are reporting.”
Similarly, Colorado’s health authority said it had been providing “a daily report” since April 5, the date of Gaynor’s email, to “HHS, FEMA and Palantir in the form of an email which links to a Tableau dashboard snapshot,” rather than live data. Last week, continued spokesperson Micki Trost, the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) received a “formal invitation” from a regional HHS official to “participate in the new HHS recovery center portal. We are currently pursuing access, training, and reporting guidance for this federally required reporting system formerly recognized as Palantir.”
Zuboff saw it instead as the latest example of tech companies gaining the upper hand over governments and using it for private enrichment.
“Will this become a lucrative opportunity for Palantir to monetize public data, and how will we know? Palantir is a black box,” she said.