Investing In Immigrant Surveillance: Palantir And The #NoTechForICE Campaign

In the profit web of American private prisons and immigrant detention centers, some companies are obvious beneficiaries — like the corporations who operate the facilities themselves. Others are more hidden from view. Today, 14.7% of the Department of Homeland Security’s $47.5 billion 2019 budget is dedicated to contracts with companies that can provide an increasingly valuable commodity: information technology. 

A report by Mijente, the National Immigration Project, and the Immigrant Defense Project shows how tech companies like Amazon, Salesforce, Microsoft, and Palantir are taking lucrative contracts with immigration enforcement agencies and fueling President Trump’s deportation regime. Even though it’s legal in America for companies to make money in these ways, there’s a question of how much influence these companies have on the laws themselves, and whether or not their actions conflict with international human rights standards.

One of these companies, Palantir, is a Silicon Valley-based software company that specializes in big data analytics. Since 2014, Palantir has provided the software that allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to collect and store detailed information on undocumented immigrants in advance of deportation raids. In late August, ICE renewed a three-year contract with the company for $49,874,018.14 — an amount that was initially hidden but revealed after copying and pasting the redacted section. This renewal sparked increased condemnation from advocacy groups like Mijente.

Jacinta González is a senior campaign organizer at Mijente, and an expert on the criminalization of Latinx and immigrant communities. I sat down with her to unpack the money story behind immigrant arrests and big data, as well as the #NoTechForICE campaign that’s been leading the fight against Palantir’s practices. 

Your experience with ICE is a very personal one, as you were profiled and detained by ICE after a protest — despite being a US citizen. Would you be able to briefly speak to how you got involved in advocating for immigrant rights, and what it’s meant for your life?

I have been involved in the immigrant rights and anti-deportation movements for over 12 years now. During that time I have witnessed how ICE has systematically terrorized our community, and increased the use of tech and data tools in its enforcement actions. Each year as their budget increases, the efforts they go to — to spread fear and hurt our families and communities — worsen.

Sometimes when people like me outside of the tech world hear about a company like Palantir, we assume the business model is too complicated to understand. Would you share about the different parts of Palantir’s business, and how it connects to immigrant surveillance? 

For years, Palantir, a private data firm, has been positioning itself as a major defense contractor, with assistance from the revolving door of corporate executives and government officials setting policy to push government contracting as a major revenue source for Silicon Valley. As a result, Palantir has a history with the defense and intelligence community, starting with the company’s start-up funding from the CIA venture capital fund In-Q-Tel, which facilitated its cozy relationship with the federal government. As it has developed technology for the military, these tools have quickly made their way statewide, used against immigrant communities in their homes, workplaces, and more. Immigration enforcement — or more aptly put, the criminalization of immigrants — has become big business.

The tools that Palantir customizes for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have helped turbocharge the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigrants. It has a suite of different software tools, but its work for ICE centers on two of them: one is a case management software that allows ICE agents to create profiles of people and populate them with personal information from different databases: think home addresses, information history, phone data, location information, criminal records, financial data, etc. This lets ICE agents have all this data in front of them at the touch of a button. Their second tool, an analytics program, gives meaning to this data and helps agents see data that would be relevant for targeting, arrest, and prosecution. ICE agents use the mobile version of this analytics tool in the field during workplace raids and other mass arrests.

This tech-powered enforcement is instilling fear in immigrant communities across the country. People are being arrested in mass raids, separated from their families and detained for weeks or months, often self-deporting because conditions in detention are so terrible and the justice system is so unfavorable to their attempts to stay. They’re being picked up in targeted operations, like we saw revealed earlier this year in Washington State, where ICE agents sat in their cars entering data on all the people, cars, and addresses they saw — and people started disappearing one by one. And now undocumented people are fearful of going to the doctor, fearful of calling the police to report domestic violence, all because they know their data can be used against them until they are arrested and deported.

Palantir is not the only company upholding this anti-immigrant agenda. The problem of tech complicity is pervasive. It’s Salesforce, Microsoft, GitHub, Dell, and dozens of small tech companies you haven’t heard of — 500 different contracts as of last year worth hundreds of millions of dollars annually. These firms choose to work for those enacting Trump’s deportation regime, which causes mass trauma and suffering each and every day.

What has been the social movement response to Palantir? Can you talk through some outcomes of the #NoTechForICE campaign so far?

Without a doubt, one of the most significant stains on the Trump administration’s legacy has been its gross and abhorrent treatment of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. It is clear that cruelty is the point, and the administration is unflappable in its zeal. That’s why, in this moment, turning our attention to those who enable this anti-immigrant agenda makes sense.  

A major part of this work has been to raise public awareness, because there’s so much secrecy that surrounds these types of companies and their contracts with the government. So to raise public awareness, we’ve done art installations, like mounting an 800-lb cage at Burning Man, where the techies party. We’ve released two in-depth research reports detailing the connections between Silicon Valley and ICE and how Palantir’s tech is used by ICE agents. 

As a result, many people from different corners of society have been galvanized to protest in a variety of ways. The response to our organizing has been really heartening. We’ve partnered with so many different groups who are calling attention to enablers of ICE, from those challenging Amazon on a number of fronts to those protesting the collaborations between ICE and local police (we refer to what amounts to a fused law enforcement entity as the “polimigra”) that we see in cities nationwide. We saw a big Jewish coalition challenge Palantir in San Francisco and New York, reminding Palantir workers of the history of businesses supporting fascist regimes back to Nazi Germany and Palantir’s place in that sordid history. The movement is only growing. Palantir’s own employees have engaged with us outside of their offices, as we and other organizations have passed out flyers alerting them to the harms that the technology they’re building is causing. Many have expressed disappointment in their company and even gone so far as to pen letters of protest

Palantir’s brand is increasingly becoming a toxic — we’ve seen three major conferences drop Palantir as a corporate sponsor, including Grace Hopper, the largest women in tech conference in the world.

Most exciting among these developments has been college students rising up to push back against Palantir’s presence on campus, forcing their universities to reconsider their relationships with Palantir, and making it increasingly difficult to recruit students who, upon learning about Palantir’s work with deportations, are pledging not to work for the company. More than 3,000 students have signed the pledge, and 16 campuses participated in an international day of action against the company, from the US to the UK. We’ve seen the company get kicked off from campus after campus because of powerful student organizing. In these times, we need to see that it is possible to fight back against forces in our society that are on the wrong side of history.

What role are investors currently playing in this fight, and where is there room for more involvement?

The Investor Alliance for Human Rights, a coalition of more than 150 investors with $4 trillion in investments just released a report outlining the human rights risks that investment in Palantir poses, given their role in upholding practices like family separation and immigrant detention that have been well-documented to violate international human rights. 

We’ve heard from individual investors who are concerned about Palantir’s activity, but we need to hear from many, many more and they need to speak out, say that they do not want their money going towards an enterprise facilitating the Trump administration’s draconian policies towards immigrants, and pressure Palantir to stop working with ICE. Investors have so much power over a company, especially as Palantir remains private and relies on capital funding, and the individuals who have put their money in the company should ask themselves what exactly they are funding and what they can do to ensure they are not a party to human rights abuses. 

Investors originally thought Palantir was going to IPO by 2020, but we know now this could be delayed until 2023. What happened? What does this mean for investors and the campaign at large?

We’re not sure what happened. The company has had a really volatile valuation over the years. Per public reports, it has never turned a profit and its shares on secondary markets have tanked recently, so it’s possible Palantir needed more time to make a business case to the public. There are a lot of people who are still unsure of the value of the tech itself, which is why we believe Palantir has made such a concerted effort to target military contracts, which would lock them in as a favored contractor for years to come.

Beyond Palantir and the private prisons who operate immigrant detention centers, what other companies are currently profiting from this mission to detain and deport immigrants? 

Amazon is one of the largest profiteers through its data hosting division, Amazon Web Services (AWS). It has the most security authorizations to handle confidential data of any tech company, allowing it to host the data of different agencies in the Department of Homeland Security and the companies that those agencies work with, like Palantir. So Amazon is effectively the cloud host for the immigration enforcement we’ve seen under the Trump administration, because without their data hosting services, it’d be difficult if not impossible for agencies like ICE to use many of the tools they use to track down immigrants and store all the personal data they keep on everyone.

Another company ICE relies heavily on is Thomson-Reuters and RELX — both Palantir investors. These companies act as data brokers for ICE, sharing with them information such as data from credit agencies, cellphone registries, social media posts, property records, utility accounts, fishing licenses, internet chat rooms, and bankruptcy filings that allows ICE to put together a full picture of immigrants lives as they conduct surveillance on them. We worked with legal scholars to protest these contracts earlier this year. 

Another one is Anduril, a company staffed by ex-Palantir employees that is nakedly right-wing and proud of its anti-immigrant work, boasting about towers it’s building along the border to give the government an omniscient, digital border wall.

How can everyday people — especially employees of these tech companies with harmful practices — get involved in making sure big tech stops profiting from detention?

Tech workers have to rise up en masse, leverage the power they have to push their industry toward the right side of history. They need to move beyond writing letters and remember it’s their labor that builds these tools. It’s time for tech workers to put down their tools, and take a real stand for immigrant rights. When the firms they work in are actively supporting a white nationalist agenda — there’s no other way to say it — they have a choice to make. We’ve seen so many deaths, so many deportations, so many families separated, so much general suffering, and tech companies are actively facilitating these actions and making money off it all. 

Workers can organize within their companies, raise concerns with their coworkers and executives, demand that management cancel unethical contracts, and talk to reporters about what’s happening inside their firms. They can sign our petition demanding Palantir cancel its contract or contact us directly about how to get involved. The power workers wield is immense here, and we’ve seen so much newfound organizing in the tech sector, we need it to go further and target these firms that enable deportations. 

Palantir did not respond to a request for comment for this article at the time of publication. Thanks to Jasmine Rashid for her contributions to this piece. Full disclosures related to my work here. This post does not constitute investment, tax, or legal advice, and the author is not responsible for any actions taken based on the information provided herein.