With the New Orleans City Council weighing a proposal by the mayor to build a sweeping network of surveillance cameras that critics call unprecedented, The Verge reported this week that the city’s police department has been secretly working with Palantir, the controversial data analysis firm cofounded by Peter Thiel.
Palantir first approached Mayor Mitch Landrieu in 2012, thanks to an introduction by Democratic power broker James Carville, according to the report. The company’s software helped the NOPD build a database of people, locations, online posts, vehicles, and weapons designed to predict who was likely to commit or become a victim of a crime. The company provided the software free of charge, so it wasn’t itemized on budget documents, meaning even members of the City Council were unaware of the relationship.
Palantir has previously worked with the U.S. military and spy agencies, including in Afghanistan and Iraq, where its software was used to predict the locations of hidden explosives. The secretive company, which takes its name from Lord of the Rings, has also done work with private companies, including American Express and Coca-Cola, but with mixed success and some complaints over high costs, according to a 2016 BuzzFeed report. As University of Cincinnati professor Nicholas Corsaro told The Verge, “Trying to predict who is going to do what based on last year’s data is just horseshit.”
Landrieu has more recently proposed an ordinance that would require any business that sells alcoholic beverages, from bars and restaurants to supermarkets and gas stations, to install outdoor cameras that would feed into a central system. The mayor’s office and police department have said the plan would help deter crime and catch offenders, but it’s been criticized by immigrant groups, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, as well as some bar owners and musicians’ groups. They say it would be an invasion of privacy, especially if footage were leaked by insiders or hackers, and might not do much to cut crime. The plan is still before the City Council.
Palantir’s proximity to the Trump administration has also raised eyebrows. In an interview this week with CNBC, Palantir CEO Alex Karp said that his presence at a meeting of top tech executives with Trump during the presidential transition—and Thiel’s role on Trump’s transition team—has not translated into more business. “We work with our agencies directly,” he said. “I haven’t seen a great impact on our business depending on who is president.”