COVID-19 Hospitalization Data is at a Crossroads. Or is it?

March 9, 2021

At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a question of where information regarding COVID-19 hospitalizations should live. Specifically, the question was which federal agency should house these data. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC) seemed like the obvious place as it is the traditional repository of infectious-disease information. The Trump administration instead decided to store these data within HHS, an agency, whether rightly or wrongly, was viewed as a more “political organization” during President Trump’s administration.

The Biden administration has a choice. It can move the hospitalization data back into the “correct agency,” the CDC, whose system is older and, therefore, less flexible. Or it can keep hospital data within HHS.

Some within the CDC are pleading with the Biden administration to move hospitalization data away from HHS. These critics claim that the HHS system caused delays, that data it collected was inconsistent, that information that once was public while in the hands of the CDC was now shuttered away from public view.

The HHS system tracking COVID-19 hospitalization is called HHS Protect and it is built by the company Palantir. Palantir has roots in Silicon Valley, and is not a US government created entity. HHS Protect shares some common DNA with the software used to track down Osama Bin Laden and the software used by the United Nations World Food Program. More controversially, Palantir’s software has been used as a tool by immigration authorities to track down immigrants that are in the country illegally.

The Biden administration’s choice, then, appears to be a political one. Whether data is stored by the CDC or HHS, it is unlikely that the federal government’s data privacy hygiene will change.

While promises were made that HHS Connect does nothing with the sensitive hospital data it collects, its critics are skeptical.

Elizabeth Warren, along with 15 other members of the House and Senate, wrote a letter to Alex Azar, then the Secretary of HHS, demanding more transparency from that department and from Palantir. The letter states that HHS Protect houses data on COVID-19 case counts, census statistics, COVID-19 testing data, and emergency department data. It claims that neither “HHS nor Palantir has publicly detailed what it plans to do with this PHI, or what privacy safeguards have been put in place.”

Vocal critics from the CDC and from other branches of government are sounding the alarm. The current data collection process of HHS is inadequate, they say, change must come. Should the Biden administration choose, then, to abandon HHS Protect and move data to the CDC? If so, will the data of Americans live in a fortified paradise free from the prying eyes of all bad actors that seek to use it with malicious intent? Maybe not. The CDC also uses a Palantir system. In fact, the HHS system grew out of the system used by the CDC. The Biden administration’s choice, then, appears to be a political one. Whether data is stored by the CDC or HHS, it is unlikely that the federal government’s data privacy hygiene will change. It is unlikely that the federal government will be more transparent regarding the data it collects and what it does with that data. And the decision will surely not change the fact that a private company has woven itself into the data collection infrastructure of the United States government. Palantir may not be decidedly good or bad. Evil or just. But it is a corporate entity whose interests are different than those of the federal government.

Andrew Philip

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