Health News

New US Health department COVID-19 tracking system uses blockchain, Palantir Technologies

COVID coronavirus pandemic

Almost two weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) took over control of COVID-19 reporting by hospitals from the Center of Disease Control (CDC), an HHS organization. Those who view the HHS as political have deemed the move controversial and raised transparency concerns over the new HHS Protect platform. Government contractor Palantir was awarded the bulk of the project without competitive bidding, one of several HHS contracts it received in the past few months, according to our research. And the platform uses blockchain.

The primary role of blockchain appears to be to ensure data is not tampered with. In a Health Department FAQ, the HHS responded to the question: “Will this data be manipulated by political appointees within the government?”. The response states that HHS will monitor manipulation attempts but also hints at blockchain’s role. 

At the point of capture, the data is timestamped and hashed or fingerprinted. “This allows HHS to track when the data was curated, when it was parsed, and when it was accessed,” says HHS. It also enables it to monitor changes.

Which blockchain?

But what blockchain technology is being used is a mystery beyond it being a permissioned blockchain. Blockchains are only immutable if they are sufficiently decentralized. HHS’ CIO José L. Arrieta has been spearheading HHS blockchain adoption for some time. He would not identify the blockchain but told Forbes that it “is not the blockchain of the anarchists and disruptors, but rather as a fresh step forward where thousands of users on the platform are accessing data sets.”

It’s entirely possible the mysterious response is simply to avoid being seen to endorse any particular technology. But it could also be a new technology from Palantir, the company that received the bulk of the HHS Protect project without competition under a COVID-19 emergency program.

In a separate HHS project, Octo Consulting provided its Logchain blockchain solution. And in January 2019, the HHS ran a multi year proposal for automation tools, including blockchain, with no less than 57 awardees including Palantir, Accenture, Deloitte, EY and Guardtime. The latter has provided DLT solutions for the Estonian government.

In terms of the data being gathered, it’s quite broad, covering 200 data sets. The most public aspect is the COVID-19 case count sources. Additionally, it includes hospital capacity, utilization, inventory and supply from states and territories.

But by far the most sensitive aspect is diagnostic lab testing data. The HHS says it doesn’t share personally identifiable health record data. 

However, under a deal with Britain’s National Health Services (NHS), it’s claimed that Palantir (as well as Google and others) had access to UK personal data and the NHS paid just one pound for the Palantir Foundry software licenses. It allegedly used the data for machine learning models.

Palantir’s role

Palantir is the Californian data company known to provide services to the U.S. Department of Defense. It recently made a preliminary filing for an IPO with the SEC. The SEC also happens to be one of its biggest clients.

We researched Palantir’s involvement in HHS projects. The company was awarded the $7.5 million HHS Protect project in April, although it had already launched it by then. Also in April, it was awarded $17.4 million as a license for its Gotham software. 

Plus, it’s involved in the NCATS Collaborative Scientific Platform, where the purpose is “to integrate, manage, secure, and analyze data across the translational spectrum, from basic research through pre-clinical research, clinical research, clinical implementation, and public health improvements.” For that, it received a $7 million award in January, which is a continuation of previous awards, including $4.7 million last September.

When announced, the NCATS system was said to be used for cancer and AIDS research. It’s hard to imagine it won’t be used for COVID-19, which means the same company is responsible for both collecting and analyzing the data.