A New Mexico man gets a call from federal child welfare officials. His teenage brother has arrived alone at the border after traveling 2,000 miles to escape a violent uncle in Guatemala. The officials ask him to take custody of the boy. He hesitates; he is himself undocumented. The officials say not to worry. He agrees and gives the officials his information. Seven months later, ICE agents arrest him at his house and start deportation proceedings.
A family in suburban Maryland gets a knock at their door. A child opens it. ICE agents enter and take away a man as his children watch. In the decades that he lived in this country as an unauthorized immigrant, the man never had a run-in with law enforcement. No, the agents explain as they walk him to their car: They found him because of the information he gave the Maryland DMV when he got a driver’s license.
For the past decade, ICE often found its targets in the interior of the U.S. by analyzing booking fingerprints from state and local jails. But the New Mexico and Maryland stories demonstrate a new trend: Increasingly, ICE is tapping much deeper wells of data to identify people for deportation. That’s possible in large part due to Palantir Technologies, a Silicon Valley start-up poised to go public Sept. 29 in the biggest tech stock listing since Uber. Palantir’s case management software, data analysis and visualization software, and mobile app are the final layer of ICE’s vast surveillance and data sharing network.
I have worked in technology policy for more than a decade. In most meetings, I am the only Latino in the room. I’m almost always the only Latinx immigrant. Much of my work focuses on how surveillance affects immigrants and people of color. Yet, even for me, it is hard to see the technology behind ICE’s brutality. Palantir’s public offering forces us to reckon with that infrastructure. As authorities separated thousands of children from their parents, used reunification interviews to track down and deport children’s relatives, and warehoused immigrants in fetid facilities where six children died in less than a year, they also consolidated a powerful and dangerous domestic surveillance dragnet.
For a long time, mass deportations were a small-data affair, driven by tips, one-off investigations, or animus-driven hunches. But beginning under George W. Bush, and expanding under Barack Obama, ICE leadership started to reap the benefits of Big Data. The centerpiece of that shift was the “Secure Communities” program, which gathered the fingerprints of arrestees at local and state jails across the nation and compared them with immigration records. That program quickly became a major driver for interior deportations. But ICE wanted more data. The agency had long tapped into driver address records through law enforcement networks. Eyeing the breadth of DMV databases, agents began to ask state officials to run face recognition searches on driver photos against the photos of undocumented people. In Utah, for example, ICE officers requested hundreds of face searches starting in late 2015. Many immigrants avoid contact with any government agency, even the DMV, but they can’t go without heat, electricity, or water; ICE aimed to find them, too. So, that same year, ICE paid for access to a private database that includes the addresses of customers from 80 national and regional electric, cable, gas, and telephone companies.
Amid this bonanza, at least, the Obama administration still acknowledged red lines. Some data were too invasive, some uses too immoral. Under Donald Trump, these limits fell away.
In 2017, breaking with prior practice, ICE started to use data from interviews with scared, detained kids and their relatives to find and arrest more than 500 sponsors who stepped forward to take in the children. At the same time, ICE announced a plan for a social media monitoring program that would use artificial intelligence to automatically flag 10,000 people per month for deportation investigations. (It was scuttled only when computer scientists helpfully indicated that the proposed system was impossible.) The next year, ICE secured access to 5 billion license plate scans from public parking lots and roadways, a hoard that tracks the drives of 60 percent of Americans—an initiative blocked by Department of Homeland Security leadership four years earlier. In August, the agency cut a deal with Clearview AI, whose technology identifies people by comparing their faces not to millions of driver photos, but to 3 billion images from social media and other sites. This is a new era of immigrant surveillance: ICE has transformed from an agency that tracks some people sometimes to an agency that can track anyone at any time.
This is where Palantir’s work for ICE comes into focus. A panoply of companies collect the data.
Palantir connects the dots. The firm helps agents access different databases, build profiles from disparate sources, from commercial data brokers to driver’s license records, and see how targets interrelate to each other. The company’s software appears to be part of the agency’s largest and most aggressive enforcement actions.
Indeed, the plan for the 2017 operation that first targeted the sponsors of unaccompanied immigrant kids, obtained by the immigrant rights group Mijente, reveals a complex web of interlocking agencies, including Health and Human Services, Customs and Border Protection, and two branches of ICE. To track the moving pieces, the paper repeatedly tells officials to enter data into “ICM,” ICE’s custom-built Investigative Case Management software. Who wrote that code? Palantir.
In its recent 310-page securities filing, Palantir makes no express mention of ICE, immigrants, deportations, or the controversy that its work for ICE has generated. Instead, in his letter to investors, CEO Alex Karp repeatedly touts Palantir’s commitment to the military and the intelligence community: “Our software is used to target terrorists and to keep soldiers safe,” he writes. When criticized, Karp has described Palantir’s work for ICE as “limited,” “a de minimis part of our work”—strange things for American contractor to say about its second-largest U.S. government client.
There is another way to read Palantir’s silence: Its leadership has decided that the cost of its work for ICE is de minimis, that in the eyes of its clients and the investing public it simply does not matter. As a Latino and an immigrant, I worry that on this point they will be right.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.