The US tech firm Palantir lobbied the UK disabilities minister to adopt new technology to crack down on benefits fraud, emails released to the Guardian have revealed.
The company wrote to Tom Pursglove to brief him on technology it had recently deployed elsewhere, promising that it had the potential for the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to rapidly “recover large amounts of fraud”.
Palantir attached a note “outlining our thinking” and told Pursglove that it wanted to brief him or his officials in detail “to explore whether this capability could be of benefit here in the UK”.
The correspondence provides the latest insight into how the firm – co-founded by Peter Thiel, the Donald Trump-supporting Libertarian billionaire – is seeking to expand its influence and role within British government.
Palantir, which grew out of a US spy organisation, is the frontrunner for a £480m NHS England contract after it worked for almost nothing to create data software for the NHS during the Covid pandemic. At least a dozen MPs and peers across the political spectrum have been pressing the government for more reassurances about how patient data will be treated as the new data operating system is built.
Records released following a request by the Guardian under the Freedom of Information Act included an email in which the company wrote on 26 April to Pursglove, whose brief includes financial support for those at risk of falling out of work, including statutory sick pay (SSP) and disability living allowance (DLA).
The company told him it had recently deployed software in a location elsewhere, details of which were redacted by the DWP. The email added: “We recognise that the UK context is complex and unique. Nevertheless we believe there is scope for rapid read-across, potentially enabling DWP to identify and recover large amounts of fraud.”
David Davis, the Tory former Brexit secretary who led the campaign against ID cards and raised concerns about Palantir’s proposed NHS involvement, said the “espoused purpose” of defeating benefit fraud was a good one but depended how it was done.
“One difficulty with this sort of issue is that a primary method of finding a solution involves collating vast amounts of data, spotting trends and then picking out individuals,” he added.
“Unfortunately that goes to the greatest concern any British government should have about Palantir – namely its history of security-related data management. So I would want to be very, very sure that there was formidable privacy protections before allowing Palantir in.””
The Labour MP Clive Lewis said: “For those of us becoming increasingly concerned at the penetration of Palantir into a growing number of public services, this doesn’t come as a surprise.”
Palantir, which draws its name from the powerful crystal balls in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, was co-founded in 2003 by Thiel, one of Silicon Valley’s few well-known Trump supporters.
Palantir believes that views such as those attributed to Davis and Lewis are based on a common misunderstanding of its model and that it is not in the business of collecting, mining or selling data.
On the email to Pursglove, it said the meeting was in relation to his responsibility for tackling fraud and was not concerned with any specific area of the department’s responsibilities.
“Instead it would have been to discuss how our software could help DWP officials to better organise their information in order to tackle fraud and error in the round – which costs the UK taxpayer billions of pounds a year that could otherwise potentially be spent in areas such as health or education,” a spokesperson said.
On general claims of lobbying, Palantir said it was proud of its software’s role in the Covid vaccine rollout and in other areas including reducing NHS waiting lists.
“We make no apology for constantly looking for new ways in which our software can help and there is nothing unusual about writing official correspondence to ministers offering ideas for how it could.”
Other records released under FoI to the Guardian, which sought correspondence between Palantir and minister’s offices, show it lobbied the Foreign Office against the backdrop of moves to rescue British citizens and others from the outbreak of war in Sudan.
“Palantir is supporting NEO [non-combatant evacuation operation] activity under way in Sudan (under MoD Op Polar Bear),” it wrote, referring to the name of the evacuation operation then under way. Ministry of Defence sources say that Palantir’s involvement was on the basis of contracts in place for some time.
In a 25 April email, Palantir said James Cleverly, the foreign secretary, and his permanent undersecretary had been receiving briefs on the company’s platform, via a partnership with the MoD, but offered the FCDO “direct access to the data”. It invited senior civil servants to a briefing on the platform’s “wider capabilities” and offered to set up an FCDO account.
The DWP declined to comment but referred to its FoI response, which said DWP ministers had not met Palantir. The Home Office said it did not comment on which events ministers attended.