Latino House Democrats demand answers on government coronavirus contracts with Palantir

HHS tapped Palantir in April to create a new platform, HHS Protect, which will aid the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
Congressional Hispanic Caucus chairman Rep. Joaquin Castro arrives for a news conference at the Capitol on Nov. 12, 2019.
Congressional Hispanic Caucus chairman Rep. Joaquin Castro arrives for a news conference at the Capitol on Nov. 12, 2019.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

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By April Glaser

Fifteen members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus sent a letter to Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on Thursday outlining concerns with the department’s recent $24.9 million of coronavirus-related contracts with the data mining and analysis company Palantir.

The HHS tapped Palantir in April to create a new platform, HHS Protect, which will aid the White House Coronavirus Task Force's efforts to track and reduce the virus. The platform aggregates information collected from at least 187 different sources, including data from various federal agencies, local health departments, all 50 states and private companies working on the White House’s pandemic response, according to an HHS spokesperson who provided comment to The Daily Beast.

While the existence of Palantir’s contract with HHS to help build the coronavirus tracking system was revealed in news reports earlier this year, many key details of the contract remain unknown. Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, which is chaired by Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, are calling for more transparency.

“The public does not know what safeguards HHS has put in place to protect their data and HHS has failed to share, among other items, what data goes into the system, how it can be used, or with whom it can be shared,” the letter states.

Palantir was awarded the contracts for the coronavirus tracking system without competition, which the agency justified due to the “unusual and compelling urgency” of the pandemic, according to the news site FedScoop, which tracks government acquisitions. Palantir was co-founded by tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who donated $1.25 million to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Palantir is best known for its work with the military and law enforcement agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement. According to documents obtained last year by Freedom of Information Act litigation led by the American Immigration Council, ICE used Palantir’s custom database tools in efforts to deport and detain immigrants under the Trump administration. Specifically, Palantir’s data platforms were instrumental in the background check services ICE used to arrest parents and family members coming to claim unaccompanied children.

Palantir and Thiel did not respond to requests for comment.

Katherine McKeogh, a spokeswoman with HHS, said in a statement that HHS Protect only uses information that has been de-identified.

"ICE does not have access to the HHS Protect system. HHS Protect was designed and is deployed for use by officials leading the public health response to COVID-19," McKeogh said.

The letter "urgently requests” specific information from the HHS about what personal health information the system will collect and how that data will be traceable back to individuals. It also asks how HHS Protect is working with private companies to collect data, what agencies have access to the data, and how long the personal data that is collected will be retained.

“We need good data to defeat the coronavirus and the use of sensitive information should not go beyond public health purposes or used as a reason to not access health care — health data should not be used for immigration enforcement,” Castro said in a statement to NBC News.

“Latino and immigrant communities have been decimated by the coronavirus pandemic, both disproportionately unemployed and also disproportionately essential workers on the front lines. We have the most to gain and lose from effective data practices that improve the COVID-19 federal response,” he added.

The lawmakers pointed to a previous example in which Palantir was able to access health data to help facilitate arrests.In the letter to the HHS, House Democrats in the caucus noted that the Palantir platform that was used to facilitate cross-agency data sharing that led to ICE arrests had pulled confidential health data from the HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, which aided with the arrests of hundreds of immigrants attempting to reunite with their families.

The representatives are also asking for basic details about which companies are involved in the creation and functioning of the platform and if people seeking health care will have the opportunity to opt out of having their health information included in the HHS Protect system.

The letter notes that companies such as Amazon and Oracle also have contracts with the HHS for the agency’s coronavirus mitigation efforts with the HHS Protect platform and seeks details on those agreements, as well.

States with high Latino populations including Texas, Arizona and California are seeing a surge in coronavirus hospitalizations this month.

“These collaborations between the health care system and ICE will definitely deter people from accessing lifesaving treatment in moments when they need it the most like in a pandemic,” said Jacinta Gonzalez, a senior campaign organizer with the immigrant advocacy group Mijiente, which has been tracking Palantir and other tech companies’ ties to ICE.

On the first day of California’s statewide lockdown, ICE agents conducted raids on immigrant communities in Los Angeles. ICE detention centers have also had large outbreaks of the coronavirus and multiple detainees have died of COVID-19 while in custody.

“There are many unanswered questions and Congress needs to review these contracts. Transparency is the first step to accountability,” Castro said.

CORRECTION (June 25, 2020, 4:33 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated how many member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus signed the letter to HHS. It was 15 members, not 38.