PARIS, March 1 — US spy-tech firm Palantir is facing spirited resistance to a massive deal it signed with the health services in England last year, suggesting the secretive company could struggle to fulfil its ambition to expand in Europe.

Activists are alarmed that a company once listed as one of the most “evil” tech firms by Slate magazine will get its hands on troves of NHS data.

Campaign groups are now organising legal challenges to the £330 million (US$420 million) deal to supply NHS England with a system to unify several patient databases.

The outcome could have huge implications for public bodies around Europe looking to digitise their services, and for Palantir’s global ambitions.

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The firm was set up 20 years ago by billionaire investor Peter Thiel with funding from the CIA’s venture capital arm.

For years, its clients were US military and spy agencies, immersed in the “war on terror”.

The firm has always taken political stances and Thiel also never shies from controversy.

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“Highways create traffic jams, welfare creates poverty, schools make people dumb and the NHS makes people sick,” he told an audience at Oxford University student union in January last year.

For good measure, he suggested the British relationship to the NHS was like “Stockholm syndrome” — the attachment a captive can feel towards their captor.

‘We don’t sell data’

The firm said Thiel was speaking as a “private individual” and quickly launched a a charm offensive to calm fears, particularly over data privacy.

“Unlike many other technology companies, our business model does not, and has never involved collecting, using or selling personal data,” the firm wrote in a blog shortly after Thiel’s comments.

However, Rosie Collington, a researcher at University College London who writes on the effects of outsourcing, told AFP such deals showed the need for greater scrutiny of who public bodies choose as partners.

“We cannot look at these partnerships in abstraction from the objectives of the founders of these companies,” she said, citing Thiel’s comments on the NHS.

Dozens of doctors made a similar point last December, calling on the government to suspend the deal while proper scrutiny was carried out.

Campaign group Foxglove is trying to force the government to explain how the new Palantir-run system will comply with data privacy laws.

Another campaign group, the Good Law Project, said in February it would sue the government to publish the NHS-Palantir contract unredacted after a version was released with three-quarters of the pages blacked out.

The group also said it was preparing a wider case based on patient privacy rights.

NHS England confirmed it had received a legal letter and would reply “in due course”, but declined to specify which case it was talking about.

‘Pound the facts’

Palantir has undoubtedly not been helped by its sinister reputation.

But the firm says it helps keep the world safe from terrorism — at a forum in Miami in February, CEO Alex Karp said Palantir software had saved Europe from “goose-stepping” tyranny.

If it is to expand into new sectors in Europe it will need to win legal and PR battles.

Jonathon Narvey of Mind Meld PR, a Canadian agency focused on tech firms, said Palantir just needed to stress their many satisfied customers.

“They’re evil but everyone’s doing business with them? Well they can’t be all bad,” he said.

“If you’ve got the facts, then pound the facts.”

The firm already has contracts with US health providers and it has been working in Europe for years, counting among its clients aerospace giant Airbus and the Danish police.

But it has not been an easy ride.

France’s internal security agency (DGSI), which signed up to Palantir following deadly attacks in Paris in 2015, reportedly jettisoned the firm last year to build its own system.

And a German court ruling last year forbade the police from using data tools like Palantir’s because they would enable profiling of people who were not suspected of any crime.

Moving into a sector like healthcare brings a host of different issues but PR experts think the equation is simple: if Palantir’s software delivers for the NHS, critics will have less ammunition.

“The problems start for them if there’s a lack of evidence,” said Sean O’Meara of Essential Content, a British PR agency.

“If in five years’ time we’re still dealing with long waiting times, people will say: ‘Well, why did we give them this contract?’“ — Reuters