Two days before Palantir’s expected initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange, Amnesty International released a report saying the secretive data analytics company presents a risk to human rights. The charge stems from Palantir’s relationship with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and its role as an enabler of the U.S. government’s ill treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers.
Palantir, which was cofounded by venture capitalist and one-time Trump supporter Peter Thiel, sells powerful big data analytics products capable of pulling together and analyzing large amounts of unstructured data from many sources. Its IPO, which is expected Wednesday, could be the biggest the tech industry has seen since Uber’s IPO last year. At the time Palantir filed to go public in July, it was worth $20 billion.
While it’s won a number of contracts to provide the software to agencies within the U.S. government, ICE (under the Department of Homeland Security) is one of Palantir’s marquee accounts. The DHS and ICE use Palantir’s ICM software to pull data from numerous government and law enforcement sources to assemble “electronic case files” about immigrants and asylum seekers. The DHS and ICE have referred to Palantir’s products as “mission critical” to investigative operations.
Amnesty reports that Palantir’s software has been used to enable the Trump Administration’s policy of separating children from their parents or caregivers. For example, ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) divisions utilized Palantir’s ICM technology in a 2017 joint operation targeting more than 400 migrants and asylum seekers who had allegedly paid smugglers to bring their children across the border from Mexico. Palantir’s software, Amnesty says, was also used by HSI to plan raids on workplaces targeting migrants and asylum seekers.
Palantir has said that it does not contract with ERO, the division of ICE that apprehends, detains, and deports immigrants, but rather with HSI, the division that carries out the investigations that can lead to the enforcement actions. “Palantir’s software does not facilitate ERO’s civil immigration enforcement generally and, thus, also does not facilitate ERO’s detention and deportation functions,” Palantir said in a letter responding to a September 20 information request from Amnesty. Palantir has also claimed that people within ERO do not use its software, says Amnesty’s Denise Bell, who authored the report.
Our point is simply that the operations that ICE is conducting do lead to deportations, and so [Palantir’s] technology is facilitating that outcome.”
“Our point is simply that the operations that ICE is conducting do lead to deportations, and so [Palantir’s] technology is facilitating that outcome,” Bell told me. She says in the report that Palantir’s software did so by helping ICE “identify, share information about, investigate, and track” the migrants and asylum-seekers that would eventually be targeted in workplace raids.
In fact, ICE’s internal documents suggest that ERO personnel do use the Palantir software, or at least were using it in 2016. A privacy impact assessment from 2016 states: “ERO also uses ICM data to inform its civil cases.” A separate assessment from later that year says that “ICE developed FALCON-SA [ICE’s customized version of Palantir software] to enhance ICE’s ability to identify, apprehend, and prosecute individuals who violate criminal, civil, and administrative laws enforced by ICE.”
Asked for comment, Palantir spokesperson Lisa Gordon said her company is still under the force of Securities and Exchange Commission quiet period rules and unable to comment.
Note that Amnesty is not saying definitively that Palantir committed human rights abuses, but that a high risk exists that the company did so via its powerful software. Bell adds that this risk is exacerbated by Palantir’s unwillingness to be totally forthcoming about the way its software is used.
“We need them to conduct human rights due diligence, and we just don’t have any evidence that they’ve done this,” Bells says. “We’ve asked for it, and they didn’t supply it.”
Amnesty’s report may not have an effect on Palantir’s first-day performance in public trading. But tech companies’ values are more important than they’ve ever been, and investors should know where Palantir stands before buying in.