Originally Published in Vice
Edward Ongweso - September 29, 2020
In a letter to Amnesty International meant to dismiss accusations of helping ICE deport migrants, Palantir accidentally admitted to doing so.
Surveillance company Palantir has revealed more details about how it contributes to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deportation operations in a clumsy attempt to prove that it does no such thing.
On Monday, Amnesty International released a briefing laying out how Palantir's failure to "conduct human rights due diligence" contributed to human rights abuses by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) against migrants and asylum-seekers. The briefing followed a letter sent by Amnesty to Palantir earlier in the month that asked the company to clarify its role in aiding ICE’s operations and if it has plans to mitigate harms caused by the agencies that Palantir’s technology empowers.
“Palantir touts its ethical commitments, saying it will never work with regimes that abuse human rights abroad," said Michael Kleinman, Director of Amnesty International's Silicon Valley Initiative. "This is deeply ironic, given the company’s willingness stateside to work directly with ICE, which has used its technology to execute harmful policies that target migrants and asylum-seekers.”
Palantir responded to Amnesty International with a letter of its own—a master class in hair-splitting that hit familiar points, used old arguments that have been dismissed, and accidentally admitted Palantir’s technology is used for deportations.
For years, Palantir has been quick to volunteer that it has no contracts with Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), an ICE subdivision that "identifies and apprehends removable aliens, detains these individuals when necessary and removes illegal aliens from the United States" as its primary mission. Instead, Palantir enters contracts with the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) subdivision of ICE. This subdivision, Palantir maintains, uses the surveillance company’s technology primarily for the purpose of "combating transnational crime such as money laundering, transnational gang activity, child exploitation, human smuggling, terrorist threats” and criminal activity in general.
While this may be true, the letter goes on to explain that HSI in fact conducts “workplace law enforcement” using Palantir’s technology. This enforcement includes compliance investigations and audits “confirming employer completion of I-9 forms documenting the legal status of its employees.” In other words, Palantir’s services are instrumental in ICE’s activities identifying undocumented people for detainment and deportation, even if, as it claims, it does not work with ERO directly.
As Palantir puts it: “...to be clear: Palantir's software is not used as part of any deportation activities conducted by ERO as a consequence of worksite operations involving HSI."
Even this admission, which tracks with Palantir CEO Alex Karp’s previous comments at Davos, does not describe the full scope of how Palantir contributes to ICE’s deportation operations. It has been clear since 2017 that the case management software Palantir provided to HSI has been widely available to ICE agents, including ERO officials, and deemed “mission critical” to the agency as a whole.
“HSI and ERO personnel use the information in ICM [Investigative Case Management system] to document and inform their criminal investigative activities and to support the criminal prosecutions arising from those investigations,” a 2016 Homeland Security disclosure reported on by The Intercept states. “ERO also uses ICM data to inform its civil cases.”
For years, HSI head Derek Benner has made targeting "illegal employment" a central part of the agency's mission. In 2018, ICE made nearly ten times as many immigration arrests at workplaces than the previous year because of Benner's belief that such targeting reduced "the continuum of crime that illegal labor facilitates, from the human smuggling networks that facilitate illegal border crossings to the associated collateral crimes, like identity theft, document and benefit fraud and worker exploitation."
Under Trump, ICE's workplace raids have not only quadrupled, but grown even larger as Palantir's technology has empowered the agency to carry out operations like the series of Mississippi raids that arrested 680 people in one day—an operation confirmed last year to have used Palantir’s technology. Palantir’s technology has also been used to target, detain, and deport unaccompanied children and their families.
It is hard to understand why Palantir has continued to pretend that it doesn’t power deportation operations even in the face of a mountain of evidence, and even when it admits that HSI’s operations are part of the deportation pipeline. It may make more sense, however, in light of its S-1 filing documents, which admit that negative media coverage is a significant investment risk factor.
The hits are unlikely to stop coming, as a recent NYMag report suggests Palantir's core value proposition—"a crystal ball you gaze into for answers"—may be a wild exaggeration using "smoke and mirrors" to obtain juicy government contracts and a dazzling $22 billion valuation ahead of its September 30 direct listing on the stock market.
As the company becomes public, the scrutiny and resistance it will face is likely to reveal a company that has branded itself as indispensable to the defense of liberalism, but in reality is busy pursuing a techno-nationalist project well-versed in the profitable art of constructing borders and policing them—and of terrorizing non-white migrants, asylum-seekers, foreigners, and citizens on either side of them.
Palantir did not immediately respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.