The tech industry is being plagued by moral and ethical issues as top players are increasingly becoming explicit about prioritizing profits over people or planet. Recent times are rift with cases of tech companies actively selling facial recognition technology to law enforcement agencies, helping ICE separate immigrant families, taking large contracts with the Department of Defense, accelerating the extraction of fossil fuels, deployment of surveillance technology. As the US gets alarmingly dangerous for minority groups, asylum seekers and other vulnerable communities, it has awakened the tech worker community to organize for keeping their employers in check. They have been grouping together to push back against ethically questionable decisions made by their employers using the hashtag #TechWontBuildIt since 2018. Most recently, several open source communities, activists and developers have strongly demonstrated against Palantir for their involvement with ICE.
Palantir, a data analytics company, founded by Peter Thiel, one of President Trump’s most vocal supporters in Silicon Valley, has been called out for its association with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). According to emails obtained by WNYC, Palantir’s mobile app FALCON is being used by ICE to carry out raids on immigrant communities as well as enable workplace raids.
According to the emails, an ICE supervisor sent an email to his officers before a planned spate of raids in New York City in 2017. The emails ordered them to use a Palantir program, called FALCON mobile, for the operation. The email was sent in preparation for a worksite enforcement briefing on January 8, 2018. Two days later, ICE raided nearly a hundred 7-Elevens across U.S. According to WNYC, ICE workplace raids led to 1,525 arrests over immigration status from October 2017 to October 2018.
The email reads, “[REDACTION] we want all the team leaders to utilize the FALCON mobile app on your GOV iPhones, We will be using the FALCON mobile app to share info with the command center about the subjects encountered in the stores as well as team locations.”
Other emails obtained by WYNC detail a Palantir staffer notifying an ICE agent to test out their FALCON mobile application because of his or her “possible involvement in an upcoming operation.” Another message, in April 2017, shows a Palantir support representative instructing an agent on how to classify a datapoint, so that Palantir’s Investigative Case Management [ICM] platform could properly ingest records of a cell phone seizure.
In December 2018, Palantir told the New York Times‘ Dealbook that Palantir technology is not used by the division of ICE responsible for carrying out the deportation and detention of undocumented immigrants. Palantir declined WNYC’s requests for comment. Citing law enforcement “sensitivities,” ICE also declined to comment on how it uses Palantir during worksite enforcement operations.
In May this year, new documents released by Mijente, an advocacy organization, revealed that Palantir was responsible for 2017 operation that targeted and arrested family members of children crossing the border alone. The documents show a huge contrast to what Palantir said its software was doing. As part of the operation, ICE arrested 443 people solely for being undocumented.
Mijente has then urged Palantir to drop its contract with ICE and stop providing software to agencies that aid in tracking, detaining, and deporting migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.
Open source communities, activists and developers strongly oppose Palantir
Post the revelation of Palantir’s involvement with ICE, several open-source developers are strongly opposing Palantir. The Entropic project, a JS package registry, is debating the idea of banning Palantir employees from participating in the project.
Kat Marchán, Entropic maintainer posted on the forum, “I find it unconscionable for tech folks to be building the technological foundations for this deeply unethical and immoral (and fascist) practice, and I would like it if we, in our limited power as a community to actually affect the situation, officially banned any Palantir employees from participating in or receiving any sort of direct support from the Entropic community.” She has further proposed explicitly banning Palantir employees from the Discourse, the Discord, as well as the GitHub communities and any other forums, Entropic may use for coordinating the project.
I hope this starts a conversation and other projects follow suit.
— Kat Marchán (@maybekatz) July 17, 2019
Amazon is also facing renewed calls from employees and external immigration advocates to stop working with Palantir. According to an internal email obtained by Forbes, Amazon employees are recirculating a June 2018 letter to executives calling for Palantir to be kicked off Amazon Web Services. More than 500 Amazon employees have signed the letter addressed to CEO Jeff Bezos and AWS head Andy Jassy.
Not just that, pro-immigration organizations such as Mijente and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, interrupted the keynote speech at Amazon’s annual AWS Summit, last Thursday.
— Daniel Altschuler 🦋 (@altochulo) July 11, 2019
More than a dozen groups of activists also protested on July 12 against Palantir Technologies in Palo Alto for the company’s provision of software facilitating ICE raids, detentions, and deportations. City residents also joined the protests expanding the total to hundreds.
Back in August 2018, the Lerna team had taken a strong stand against ICE by modifying their MIT license to ban companies who have collaborated with ICE from using Lerna. The updated license banned companies that are known collaborators with ICE such as Microsoft, Palantir, and Amazon, among the others from using Lerna.
To quote Meredith Whittaker, Google walkout organizer who recently left the company, from her farewell letter, “Tech workers have emerged as a force capable of making real change, pushing for public accountability, oversight, and meaningful equity. And this right when the world needs it most” She further adds, “The stakes are extremely high. The use of AI for social control and oppression is already emerging, even in the face of developers’ best of intentions. We have a short window in which to act, to build in real guardrails for these systems before AI is built into our infrastructure and it’s too late.”
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. As the tech industry grapples with the consequences of its hypergrowth technosolutionist mindset, where do tech workers draw the line? Can tech workers afford to be apolitical or separate their values from the work they do? There are no simple answers, but one thing is for sure – the questions must be asked and faced. Open source, as part of the commons, has a key role to play and how it evolves in the next couple of years is likely to define the direction the world would take.