A group of leading privacy experts gathered in Berkeley this week to discuss pressing issues at the intersection of privacy and technology. One of the conference’s sponsors: a Silicon Valley tech giant founded with CIA money that counts among its clients the CIA, FBI, and the National Security Agency, hardly top-of-mind organizations when it comes to citizens’ privacy. But academics and activists are calling out Palantir Technologies for sale of software to another US government agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency tasked with executing the White House’s hardline policies on immigration.
The organization Mijente, a vehement opponent of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies (its name is a play on the Spanish mi gente, or my people), wants the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology to drop Palantir as a sponsor of the privacy conference. Mijente is promoting a letter, signed by hundreds of academics, that says the two-day Privacy Law Scholars Conference should “take the lead and refuse affiliation with a company that builds programs and tech tools to enable surveillance and profiling of immigrants and communities that already face disparate impacts of racial profiling and marginalization.”
While Palantir told The New York Times late last year that it did work on cross-border criminal investigations with ICE, it claimed that it didn’t provide software to the agency’s Enforcement and Removal Operations, the division handling domestic immigration enforcement. But immigrant advocacy groups sued to obtain documents showing that, in fact, Palantir’s Investigative Case Management technology was an integral part of a plan involving the enforcement division in an operation to arrest parents and family members of unaccompanied children. Based in part on the documents the immigration advocates obtained, The Intercept reported on the details of a now-concluded 2017 operation that resulted in more than 400 arrests. ICE told The Intercept that the operation targeted the sponsors who pay people to smuggle children into the country.
The planning document obtained by the advocacy groups shows that once ICE had enough information on a child’s relatives or others who may have paid for his or her journey to the United States, Palantir’s software would help agents communicate among one another and expand the investigation. “Teams will be available to immediately conduct database checks and contact suspected sponsor/parent or family members to identify, interview, and if applicable, seek charges against the individual(s) and administratively arrest the subjects and anybody encountered during the inquiry who is out of status,” the document said. (Administrative arrests are for civil violations of immigration law.)
In an op-ed in The Guardian, Mijente co-founder Marisa Franco argued that the Berkeley conference shouldn’t lend its imprimatur to Palantir: “Standing by to watch any institution associate itself with Palantir is unacceptable. We all become complicit in giving the company credibility that softens its image.”
The conference’s organizers counter that sponsors don’t have input on programming. “Palantir and our other sponsors are willing to engage and listen, and many academics want to bring their ideas to the companies’ attention,” Berkeley Professor Chris Hoofnagle wrote in a letter on the conference’s webpage. “The funding of our sponsors actually enables more academics to participate, and our sponsors play no role in the selection of papers or the academics who attend. We have a clear sponsorship policy to guarantee academic freedom of the event. Palantir has agreed to our policy and has abided by it.”
President Trump has frequently likened immigrants to criminals and is well known for his hardline immigration policies, which include working to build a border wall and pursuing a policy of separating immigrant families and detaining children. Of course, he also made waves for calling for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims” coming into the United States. Politico reported Thursday the administration is considering a new policy that would likely foreclose the ability of Central American migrants to seek asylum.
As of publication time, Palantir had not made a representative available for comment for this article.