Prediction models to help the UK government fight the spread of coronavirus have been developed using anonymized confidential patient information collected from government databases.
Documents seen by The Guardian suggest the data is being used to offer government ministers and officials “real-time information about health services, showing where demand is rising and where critical equipment needs to be deployed.” The anonymized data can apparently include details of patient gender, postcode, symptoms, method of prescription, and the time a call was ended to the NHS 111 helpline. Phone location information has been offered to the NHS by two unnamed private companies to form part of the data, but is not currently being used.
The so-called “COVID-19 datastore” is being accessed and added to by Faculty, a British AI company, which is working with Peter Thiel’s US data firm Palantir in a bid to produce predictive computer models. According to Faculty, “The companies involved do not control the data and are not permitted to use or share it for their own purposes.”
In a statement, the company also made it clear that, “Faculty is not dealing with personally identifiable information. Faculty is helping to develop dashboards, models and simulations to provide key central government decision-makers with a deeper level of information about the current and future coronavirus situation to help inform the response.”
Faculty also reportedly considered running a computer simulation of “targeted herd immunity” to assess its impact, but the company’s lawyers said such a simulation never took place.
Collection of such confidential information is viewed as “unprecedented,” according one anonymous Whitehall source speaking to The Guardian. They are concerned about “insufficient regard for privacy, ethics or data protection.” However, a spokesperson for NHSX, the digital transformation arm of the NHS, stated, “Strict data protection rules apply to everyone involved in helping in this critical task.”
Last year, information uncovered by Privacy International found that a partnership between Amazon and the NHS gave Amazon access to “all [NHS] healthcare information, including without limitation symptoms, causes, and definitions, and all related copyrightable content, data, [and] information” with no reciprocal benefit to the NHS.