Palantir’s MacNaughton says data-mining firm is working with Ottawa, three provinces on COVID-19

David MacNaughton, then-Canadian ambassador to the U.S., at a news conference in Washington, D.C. in June 2019.
David MacNaughton, then-Canadian ambassador to the U.S., at a news conference in Washington, D.C. in June 2019. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Controversial data-analytics firm Palantir says it is working with the federal government, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia as part of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But Ottawa and two of the three provinces say they haven’t yet engaged the company on any COVID-19-related projects.

Palantir’s Canadian president David MacNaughton, previously Canada’s ambassador to the U.S. and a close adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, made the statements during an April 22 teleconference CIBC Capital Markets organized for clients; The Logic has obtained a recording of the call.

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Talking Point

Palantir’s Canadian president David MacNaughton said the data-mining firm is working with the federal government as well as those of Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia on their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. MacNaughton made the statement on a CIBC Capital Markets conference call last week. The controversial company is providing its services pro bono, the former Canadian ambassador to the U.S. said. But three of those governments say they haven’t yet engaged the firm on any COVID-19-related projects.

“We’ve had some involvement with a number of the provinces and with the federal government,” MacNaughton told participants. 

Palantir’s customers include corporate giants like Airbus and BP, as well as government agencies such as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Pentagon. Human rights groups have criticized the company’s work with U.S. immigration authorities and police forces. 

MacNaughton said Palantir’s work “getting data together in real time … in 18 different countries around the world has helped leaders make decisions” on COVID-19—and he said that includes Canada. “While we’re doing a bit in Ontario and we’re doing a bit in Alberta, and some in B.C., and a little bit federally, I must say that I’ve been a bit disappointed that [the] Canadian health-care system hasn’t latched onto our technology as much as they could have,” he said.

MacNaughton told the teleconference the company was offering governments its services for free during the COVID-19 pandemic, something he said was limiting Canadian authorities’ limited uptake of the technology. “I don’t think governments have a way of figuring out how to actually procure pro bono services,” he said.  

Palantir declined to answer questions about MacNaughton’s comments, or any COVID-19-related work it is doing with Canadian governments. “We don’t have anything to add to this thread,” said spokesperson Lisa Gordon, instead directing The Logic to two recent corporate blog posts about privacy for organizations using its Foundry platform, which lets users integrate and analyze different sets of data, during the pandemic.

But three of the four governments MacNaughton cited denied the company is involved in any of their COVID-19 efforts. “We are not aware of any work by Palantir, nor any discussion of work with Palantir,” said Cole Davidson, press secretary to federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu. Department spokesperson David Wolkowski said the federal government “has not entered into contracts” with the company related to COVID-19, and that it “does not have access to data or information that you referenced,” which included medical, epidemiological and location data as well as personal information.

The Alberta government confirmed it had been in contact with the firm. “There have been preliminary discussions, but nothing beyond that at this point,” said Harrison Fleming, a spokesperson for Premier Jason Kenney. Ontario said it has not had any such talks. “I can confirm that our government has not taken any meetings with Palantir regarding what you’re describing,” said Hayley Chazan, press secretary to Health Minister and Deputy Premier Christine Elliott. The B.C. government did not provide comment before deadline.

Palantir did not respond to The Logic’s request for comment on the governments’ claims they aren’t working with the company.

The day before the teleconference, The Daily Beast reported the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had signed a contract with Palantir to use Foundry in its new COVID-19 data platform, which will aggregate information on capacity, testing and supply chains from federal, state and local governments as well as health-care facilities and other sources.

That same day, The Wall Street Journal reported Palantir was providing modelling tools to public-sector customers in “more than a dozen countries outside the U.S.,” including the U.K. National Health Service (NHS), Greece and Germany. It quoted a source saying the company was offering its services for free in many places; it’s previously used pro bono work as a form of business development. On Monday, the New Statesman reported Palantir will charge just £1 for its work on a COVID-19-related data project for the NHS. 

MacNaughton’s comments came in response to a question from moderator Lisa Raitt, vice-chair of CIBC Capital Markets and former deputy leader of the federal Conservative Party, about whether Canadian health authorities were among those that had shown interest in using Palantir’s technology in response to the pandemic. 

Ottawa and several provincial governments have held discussions with private-sector and academic groups about using apps and other technology for contact tracing and other measures to combat the spread of COVID-19. On Thursday, the federal government announced it would spend $10 million on a “Canadian data monitoring initiative” to “coordinate and share pandemic-related data across the country.” Ontario is launching a new health data platform in June, which will give researchers access to de-identified medical records. Both governments said Palantir is not involved in those projects. 

MacNaughton also told the teleconference that the firm had faced challenges with the availability and quality of data in Canada. While it should be more accessible in Canada’s single-payer system than it is in the U.S., he said, “so much of our data and governance is siloed that we had a heck of a time getting to the point where we can do as much as I think we should be doing to help governments and leadership make decisions.”

MacNaughton was named Canada’s ambassador to the U.S. in January 2016, leaving the role in August 2019 to become president of Palantir Canada. He co-chaired the Liberal Party’s campaign in Ontario in the 2015 federal election, which brought Trudeau to office. In January, the CBC reported MacNaughton was advocating to the PMO for the permanent appointment of his former deputy in Washington, acting ambassador Kirsten Hillman. Hillman was named to the role in March.

The Prime Minister’s Office declined to answer questions about whether MacNaughton has advised Trudeau or his staff on COVID-19 or any other issues since he left his post, directing The Logic to Health Canada’s response

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Palantir, co-founded by venture capitalist Peter Thiel, set up an Ottawa office in 2013, but has few publicly disclosed contracts with Canadian governments. As The Logic first reported, the federal government awarded Palantir $997,434 in March 2019—its first—for software to be used by the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command. Neither Ottawa’s procurement website nor its proactive contract disclosure database show any subsequent agreements with the firm. 

The company is among 78 that have been pre-qualified to bid on AI projects tendered by departments and agencies. But as The Logic first reported, officials weren’t able to consider Palantir’s work with U.S. law enforcement in evaluating whether to put it on that technology source list.