Palantir’s MacNaughton has ‘engaged with many’ in federal government: Bains

Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains testifies at a virtual meeting of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Innovation, Science and Technology in April 2020.
Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains testifies at a virtual meeting of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Innovation, Science and Technology in April 2020. Screenshot/The Logic

Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains says he is in frequent contact with Palantir Canada president David MacNaughton, but did not say whether MacNaughton or his company has worked with the federal government on the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Bains made the comments to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Innovation, Science and Technology on Thursday after The Logic reported MacNaughton, the former ambassador to the U.S. and counselor to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, told a private event last week that the controversial data-mining firm was doing pro bono work with Ottawa and three provinces on their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, spokespeople for Health Minister Patty Hajdu and her department said they were unaware of any work or discussions with Palantir, and that the federal government had not entered into any contracts with the company as part of its antiviral efforts.

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Talking Point

David MacNaughton, president of Palantir Canada and former Canadian ambassador to the U.S., has ‘engaged with many’ in the federal government, Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains told a parliamentary committee on Thursday. The Logic reported MacNaughton told a private event last week that the controversial data-mining firm was working with the federal government, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia on their response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m not aware of any formal commitment from him,” Bains said at the committee, responding to a question from Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner about whether MacNaughton was advising the federal government on its response to COVID-19. Bains also confirmed that MacNaughton has provided advice to federal officials in the past. “I know that he’s engaged with many, including myself, in giving us solutions and ideas on how to help Canadians. So I speak to him on a regular basis.” 

Asked to confirm The Logic’s story, Bains said he would have to follow up with specifics later. “I speak to [MacNaughton] as a friend,” he said. “He’s someone that’s guided me through many personal issues with my kids and my family. He’s been someone that I’ve worked with in the past.” Bains and MacNaughton co-chaired the Liberal Party’s Ontario campaign in the 2015 federal election that brought Trudeau to office.  

Bains’s office told The Logic the minister had nothing further to add to his testimony. 

Palo Alto, Calif.-based Palantir, founded by venture capitalist Peter Thiel, boasts corporate customers such as Airbus and BP and government agencies like U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Pentagon, which use the company’s technology to analyze data and make decisions. However, it has been a frequent target of civil liberties and human rights groups, which have criticized its work with U.S. border authorities and police forces.  

U.S. media reported last week Palantir was providing technology and tools to more than a dozen countries as part of their antiviral efforts, including the U.S., U.K., Germany and Greece. MacNaughton told a teleconference for CIBC Capital Markets clients last week the company was involved in COVID-19 work in 18 countries, and was doing pro bono work with Canadian governments during the pandemic. Palantir declined to answer questions about his statements, 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.  

The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) declined to answer questions from The Logic Wednesday about whether MacNaughton had advised Trudeau or his staff on COVID-19 or any other issues since he stepped down as ambassador in August 2019. Asked again on Thursday in light of Bains’s testimony that MacNaughton was “engaged with many … in giving us solutions and ideas on how to help Canadians,” the PMO again declined to comment.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, who worked with MacNaughton on USMCA negotiations, Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne and the Privy Council Office, which sits atop the federal civil service, did not provide comment before deadline about their contact with the former ambassador.  

Also on Thursday, two departments of the British Columbia government denied hiring the company as part of their COVID-19 efforts. “So far [we] have found no record of any work being done with Palantir,” said Chandler Grieve, a spokesperson for Emergency Management BC Heather Amos, a spokesperson for the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, similarly said she had not identified any COVID-19 projects involving the firm.

Earlier this week, Ontario said it had not met with Palantir on antiviral efforts, and Alberta said it had only had preliminary discussions. The company did not respond to The Logic’s request for comment on the governments’ claims. 

At the committee meeting and in a subsequent statement, Rempel Garner raised concerns that the federal consumer privacy act would not apply to a pro bono contact-tracing system, stating that it only covers commercial activities. “There has been no official arrangement with any company around contact tracing,” Bains responded, noting that the government is examining options and that privacy is “of paramount concern.”

Privacy regulators in each of the jurisdictions MacNaughton cited said they had not been consulted on any projects involving the company, nor had they received any public complaints about the firm. “A number of government departments have contacted us regarding COVID-19-related initiatives with an impact on privacy, including Health Canada, but we have not been informed of any government department or agency working with Palantir on such initiatives,” said Vito Pilieci, a spokesperson for the federal commissioner’s office. Earlier this month, the watchdog published a framework for such measures, the principles of which include ensuring they are necessary and proportionate, time-limited and use de-identified or aggregate data if possible. 

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Ontario privacy commissioner Brian Beamish said it’s “understandable that governments may want to take extraordinary measures that could be considered invasive under normal circumstances” during a public health emergency. But he cautioned authorities must comply with the province’s health privacy law, and consider how and for what reason such data would be collected and used when evaluating new technologies to combat COVID-19. 

“I would expect that any agreement between the government and a private sector service provider, whether it is a pro bono or paid engagement, would include details related to the legal authority for collections and uses of personal information, where the data would be stored, data protection measures, and clear limits on how long the information will be retained,” he said, calling for a timeline on when the technology would stop being used and the collected information destroyed.