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2020.11.26 08:00

Lithuania signs multi-million deal after company rep hired by government – LRT Investigation

Jurga Tvaskienė, LRT Investigation Team, LRT.lt2020.11.26 08:00

Lithuania’s government hired a former manager of a data company before signing a multi-million-euro deal with the same London-based firm that has been criticised for involvement in privacy violations, LRT Investigation Team has found.

In early April, the Lithuanian government signed a contract with the London-based branch of Palantir, which had offered a free trial of its software used to collect, analyse, and integrate Covid-19 data.

“On April 1, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, an eight-month contract for the free use of software was signed with Palantir Technologies UK,” the Government’s Office told LRT Investigation Team in a written response.

The company itself approached Lithuania, as well as all EU and NATO member states, offering a free trial of their products during the onset of the pandemic, according to the Government’s Office.

Under the contract, the Lithuanian government started using the software on April 6.

Almost immediately, the Lithuanian Government’s Office hired a new project manager, Aistis Šimaitis, who had until recently been a business manager for Eastern and Central Europe at Palantir Technologies.

He was responsible for developing analytical tools, as well as managing the technical adoption of Palantir’s system.

“The office chose this specialist because he had the necessary skills to start working with this tool immediately during the crisis,” the Government’s Office said in its written response.

As of March 7, Šimaitis was no longer an employee of Palantir and he was hired after the contract had been signed, according to the office.

Later, on May 27, the government decided to expand the Covid-19 database and to create a centralised platform. Lithuania’s Economy and Innovation Ministry and the Statistics Department were put in charge of the project.

On July 16, the Central Contracting Authority (CPO LT) announced that it would purchase a license for the data management platform from Palantir Technologies UK. The contract was worth 3.267 million euros.

Additionally, the Lithuanian government will need to pay 3.62 million euros annual fees for the upcoming 15 years, according to documents acquired by LRT Investigation Team.

The funds to pay for the use of software have been earmarked in Lithuania’s Future DNA economic plan, the post-pandemic stimulus package adopted by the outgoing government. The government took the decision to allocate the funds a week before announcing the tender.

Lithuania’s Statistics Department said that two providers participated in the tender. The second participant was a joint venture that included software companies Algoritmų Sistemos, BAIP, and NRD. However, the group could not prepare their product in time.

“We asked for an extension [of the deadline], but it was not extended, so we did not participate,” Elena Vengrienė, head of Algoritmų Sistemos said.

According to Jūratė Petrauskienė, head of the Statistics Department, it chose Palantir because the government needed the system immediately, and it could not be developed so quickly in-house.

She also said that Šimaitis had no influence on Palantir’s success in the tender.

Human rights violations

Headquartered in the United States, Palantir is one of the most successful and fastest-growing data analytics companies in the world. Its branch Palantir Technologies UK is based in London.

The company has been subject to some criticism. In September, the BBC published a report saying that Palantir’s products allow tracking people and violate privacy rights.

Natalie Sherman, reporter at BBC, wrote that the company’s products have been criticised for enabling “surveillance and analysis of data – everything from drivers licenses and social media posts to DNA swabs”.

The potentially invasive technology “skirts people's right to privacy and is ripe for abuse”, she wrote.

Data expert Mark Cash also told the BBC that after one starts to use Palantir’s system, it is extremely difficult to leave it because of the high level of data integration.

The company’s products have been used by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) during its controversial operations against migrants. Amnesty International, one of the world's leading human rights NGOs, criticised Palantir in their September 2020 report, saying that the company does not accept responsibility for protecting human rights.

In the UK, the decision to use the firm to handle the country’s health data also caused an outcry.

LRT Investigation Team contacted Palantir Technologies UK regarding its contracts with the Lithuanian government. It refused to comment.

Overpriced?

Vengrienė, the head of Algoritmų Sistemos which also participated in the public tender, said that if her group had been given more time, it could have built a data management platform for a price “much lower” than that of Palantir.

A representative of the German software company SAP in Lithuania, Kęstutis Kasakaitis, said that data management platforms are expensive, and it is hard to evaluate whether Lithuania overpaid for it.

“In Germany, the price was between four and five million euros. In Lithuania and other smaller countries, the price would most likely be smaller. But I’d need more information for more accurate estimates,” Kasakaitis said.

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