A US-based high-tech surveillance company. Designed systems for US immigration authorities to surveil and target immigrants and to manage mass immigration raids. Its predictive policing tools are used by law enforcement agencies and by Israeli security forces.
Palantir Technologies is a software company that specializes in data analytics for security and surveillance. Palantir’s annual revenue in 2020 was $1.1 billion, with 56% coming from government clients, up from 47% in 2019. As of 2020, Palantir has 139 clients with 19 offices in 14 countries. The company has grown from 313 employees in 2010 to 2,492 employees in 2021.
Palantir has always been a politically-oriented company, founded in Silicon Valley in 2003 using $2 million in investment rounds from the CIA’s venture capital firm, In-Q-Tel. Throughout the years, Palantir has vigorously defended its contracts with the U.S. military and immigration agencies, pledging to “stand by them when it is convenient, and when it is not.” As other companies in Silicon Valley respond to internal and external pressure to ensure their technologies are being used ethically, Palantir has largely ignored or dismissed public concern over its business relationships. In 2020, Palantir became publicly traded and moved its headquarters from Palo Alto, California, to Denver, Colorado. Palantir intentionally distanced itself from the rest of the tech sector, with CEO Alex Karp stating: “We have chosen sides, and we know that our partners value our commitment.”
Palantir offers two main data analytics software platforms that can be adapted for a variety of clients and uses, without requiring the company to create new software:
- Gotham - was developed for militaries and intelligence agencies to integrate and organize data from many sources, detect patterns, and create answers to queries.
- Foundry - was developed primarily for commercial industries and businesses, but has also been used by government agencies for monitoring public health.
Palantir uses third-party software such as Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure to host and operate certain platforms. Its main data providers include Thomson Reuters, LexisNexis by RELX, Dun & Bradstreet, IHS, Dow Jones, Inrix, Epidemico, and DigitalGlobe.
U.S. Immigrant Surveillance and Targeting
Palantir has served as a strategic partner to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), with its systems described as “mission critical” to the agency’s operations. As of May 2021, ICE has awarded Palantir contracts worth $218 million. According to activist group Mijente, ICE uses Palantir’s tools to conduct workplace raids, deportations, and family separations. From 2008 to 2020, 12% of Palantir’s U.S. government contracts were with ICE.
Palantir has provided ICE with two complementary systems based on Gotham, the first being the Investigative Case Management System (ICM). ICM is a case management tool used by ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), the Office of Professional Responsibility, and select ICE attorneys. It stores immigrants’ data from multiple sources, including family relationships, immigration history, employment history, biometric identification, license plate readers, social media profiles, and contact information.
ICM was used in the separation of immigrant families in 2017. The ICE operation to target and arrest family members of unaccompanied immigrant children who crossed the border used Palantir’s ICM system to build cases against people slated for deportation. During this operation, ICE arrested 443 people, many of them relatives of immigrant children. Palantir provides ongoing maintenance and support for ICM, earning $52 million from 2014 to 2019 with the potential to earn an additional $48 million by 2022.
The second key system that Palantir developed for ICE is known as FALCON. Also based on Gotham, FALCON is a more purely analytical tool than the ICM. It ingests massive amounts of data from ICM and other ICE systems and provides visual and relational analysis that ICE agents use to target people and to plan raids. Despite Palantir’s claims that it does not assist ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) with deportations, FALCON is a key tool used by ICE to power workplace raids, arrests, and deportations. Reporting has exposed the platform’s role in a number of high-profile raids:
- In August 2019, ICE conducted the largest single-state workplace raid in its history, arresting 680 people at chicken processing plants in Mississippi. The investigation leading to the raid made use of the FALCON Tipline. One worker deported as a result, Edgar López of Guatemala, was separated from his wife and children. When López attempted to return to Mississippi to be with his family, he was brutally killed alongside 18 other people in Tamaulipas, Mexico.
- FALCON was used during a 2018 workplace raid of 7-Eleven stores in New York City, where ICE agents were told to test the Palantir-developed FALCON mobile app shortly before the raid began. At the time, the nationwide raids constituted the largest ICE raid against a single employer during the Trump presidency.
- In 2016, a Palantir employee traveled to New York City to provide FALCON support to ICE agents in preparation for a mass no-knock raid. ICE billed the operation a “transnational gang raid,” though only three people out of the 120 indicted were identified as non-U.S. citizens, and prosecutors did not even accuse the majority of belonging to a gang.
Police Data Sharing and Predictive Policing
Palantir has provided its data management platform Gotham as well as predictive policing technologies to international and U.S. law enforcement agencies. These systems incorporate many types of personal information provided by data brokers about individuals and their associations and relationships including the tracking of license plate readers, credit card statements and banks, educational institutions records, mental health diagnoses, business partnerships, records of encounters with law enforcement, family relationships, prison visitations, and more.
This information is shared among law enforcement offices and agencies at the local, national, and international levels. Law enforcement agencies in the U.S. do not need warrants to access this data, available through “fusion centers” - state-level resource hubs run by the Department of Homeland Security. For example, the California fusion center shares information collected by law enforcement agencies in 300 cities and allows them to access this database through the Palantir system. Press has reported on U.S. law enforcement usage of Palantir systems in Salt Lake City, Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., New Orleans, and San Diego.
Palantir's predictive policing tool analyzes patterns in people’s routines, associations, and activities, and highlights suspicious patterns that potentially resemble those of people associated with crime and gang activity, even if there are no indications of actual crime involvement. This allows law enforcement to criminalize people and communities based on patterns of associations, leading to disproportionately negative effects on over-policed and criminalized communities, privacy concerns, and a lack of transparency. Law enforcement officials have also complained that Palantir lures them into buying software with low prices, but then makes them dependent on Palantir for pricey upgrades and maintenance, as Palantir’s tools are incompatible with other systems.
Palantir has provided its AI predictive policing system (the same system described in the previous section) to Israeli security forces to be used in its surveillance of the Palestinian civilian population in the occupied Palestinian territory. The system is supposed to identify individuals who are likely to launch “lone wolf” terrorist attacks.
Military Artificial Intelligence
In September 2020, the U.S. Army awarded Palantir a $91 million contract to develop and test artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning capabilities using Gotham and Foundry. Palantir was contracted to upgrade the U.S. Army’s Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS-A), a platform that obtains data from over 700 sources, and shares and stores intelligence for commands and outposts all over the world. This award is part of a larger contract worth $823 million in which Palantir and BAE Systems compete to develop parts of DGS-A until 2027.
In February 2020, Palantir beat Raytheon for an $84 million contract with the U.S. Navy. Under the three-year contract, Palantir is creating “an open architecture for data ingestion, integration, management, and analytics capabilities.”
Palantir replaced Google in 2018 as the new contractor for “Project Maven,” a Pentagon initiative to deploy autonomous AI drones that can track vehicles and people, with the goal of sending these drones to combat zones to help the military prioritize targets and plan raids. Palantir executive Shyam Sankar described the project as “this generation’s Manhattan project.” In April of 2018, Google left this project over employee backlash, and an employee-written letter stated that Google shouldn’t be “in the business of war” or else Google’s reputation would join the ranks of “Palantir, Raytheon, and General Dynamics,” and struggle “to keep the public’s trust”. Palantir co-founder Peter Thiel stated that “the silver lining of the Maven controversy is that it tells us that AI is a military technology ... and it’s not something that Silicon Valley had acknowledged for a long time.”
COVID-19 Surveillance and Monitoring
As of May 2021, Palantir has received $43 million in COVID-related contracts from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Air Force, and other US government agencies.
In what some criticized as yet another move by the Trump administration to politicize the pandemic, HHS directed medical institutions to send their data straight to its new Palantir system, bypassing the existing system of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In April 2020, HHS awarded Palantir two contracts totaling $25 million for the development of HHS Protect, a system that tracks how hospitals nationwide respond to and manage the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing the federal government to see the remaining supplies and capacity at each location.
In January 2021, CDC officials urged President Biden to end the contracts with Palantir over concerns that HHS Protect was inaccurate, incomplete, and obscure, with data being hidden from the public and often differing greatly from that reported by the state. The officials requested that hospitalization and vaccine data be returned to the purview of the CDC instead of HHS.
Just Futures Law, MediaJustice, Mijente Support Committee, and the Immigrant Defense Project sued HHS in February 2021 for failing to respond to FOIA requests that would make information in the HHS Protect system available to the public. Given that HHS has a history of sharing data with ICE, immigrant rights groups and organizations focused on surveillance have concerns about how data from the new COVID management platforms will be used.
Palantir has also provided similar COVID-related tracking platforms to the National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom in addition to health agencies in the Netherlands and Greece. OpenDemocracy successfully sued the NHS, arguing that the public must be consulted if the agency were to continue its partnership with Palantir beyond the COVID emergency.
Palantir Chairman, co-founder, and largest shareholder Peter Thiel, has a far-reaching network of political influence in the United States. He was a major funder of the 2016 Trump presidential campaign, to which he donated over $1 million. Thiel subsequently received a position on Trump's transition team executive committee, where he helped staff the new administration with his own employees and associates.
Thiel did not contribute to the 2020 Trump presidential campaign but contributed $10 million each to two Republican candidates for U.S. Senate: J.D. Vance of Ohio and Blake Masters of Arizona. Both were long-time employees of Thiel. Thiel had previously contributed large sums to the Senate campaigns of Josh Hawley, widely perceived to be sympathetic to the January 2021 Capitol insurrection, and Kris Kobach, known for his anti-immigrant politics.
Palantir spent over $21 million on lobbying between 2008 and 2021, using both in-house lobbyists and lobbying firms.
Leading up to the company’s September 2020 direct listing on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), Palantir was criticized in the financial press for its unusual corporate governance structure: its Chairman, CEO, and President can control shareholder vote outcomes indefinitely, even if they own as little as 0.5% of the company’s shares. This structure was described as undemocratic for excluding the investing public from any meaningful oversight of the company they are invested in.
Palantir co-founder Joseph Lonsdale invests in and sits on the board of Citizen, a crowd-sourced crime-tracking app that has come under fire for leading to data breaches and wrongful arrests. Palantir maintains a commercial relationship with Lonsdale’s firm, Lonsdale Enterprises, which offered $300,000 worth of consulting services to Palantir in the first quarter of 2021. Palantir Chairman and co-founder Peter Thiel is also an investor in Citizen.
In February 2019, The World Food Programme (WFP), a United Nations aid agency, launched a five-year, $45 million partnership with Palantir to aggregate anonymized data of the more than 90 million people WFP serves. Concerned organizations and individuals wrote an open letter to the WFP, urging it to reconsider its partnership with Palantir over concerns related to data de-anonymization, bias, rights to data, transparency, and accountability.
In March of 2018, Palantir employees were found to have been involved in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where data from 50 million Facebook profiles was mined to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
- In November 2020, Soros Fund Management sold all its shares in Palantir because of Palantir's business practices regarding the "negative social consequences of big data."
- In September 2019, over 1,200 students from 17 U.S. universities signed a pledge that they would not work with Palantir because of its relationship with ICE.
- On August 28, 2019, the largest conference for women in computing, the Grace Hopper Celebration, dropped Palantir as a sponsor after a petition with 200 signatures was submitted citing its relationship with ICE.
- In August 2019, 60 Palantir employees signed a petition calling for an end to its contracts and relationship with ICE, including its role in family separations.
- In August 2019, the LGBTQ tech organization, Lesbians Who Tech, removed Palantir from its annual job fair because of public dissent to Palantir’s role in ICE workplace raids.
- In June 2019, the Privacy Law Scholars Conference at the University of California at Berkeley dropped Palantir as a sponsor after 140 academics signed a letter citing its questionable relationship with ICE.