In a CNBC interview at Davos, Palantir CEO Alex Karp admitted that his company “[finds] people in our country who are undocumented.” For years, Palantir has attempted to deny or downplay any role in those operations by pointing to the two wings of ICE, which deal with “criminal investigations” and immigration enforcement.
Palantir, a technology company founded by Karp and Peter Thiel, has contracts with the Pentagon, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Homeland Security. Last year alone, Palantir secured $1.5 billion in new federal government contracts. But it has faced the most scrutiny over its contracts with ICE.
Motherboard has previously covered Palantir’s extensive ties to ICE: it has created an Integrated Case Management System, used to store data collected from vast surveillance networks and assign it to files on individuals or organizations. Palantir has also created FALCON and FALCON Tipline. The former is a series of software tools meant to visualize connections after data has been collected, filed, and analyzed, while the latter serves to consolidate data from tips for "link analysis" and future deportation operations.
This technology is necessary for the agency to operate and rapidly expand its raids. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Karp minimized his company’s role and told CNBC "it's a de minimis part of our work, finding people in our country who are undocumented, but it's a legitimate, complex issue."
"This is par for the course for Palantir. Every time we've protested outside their offices every time we've engaged with them or seen them give a media interview, they have the same line: this is a complicated issue, filled with nuance, and we only wish you'd see that,” said Jacinta Gonzalez, a field director with Mijente, a Latinx grassroots group.
In December 2018, the company emailed a statement to the New York Times:
“There are two major divisions of ICE with two distinct mandates: Homeland Security Investigations, or H.S.I., is responsible for cross-border criminal investigations. The other major directorate, Enforcement and Removal Operations, or E.R.O., is responsible for interior civil immigration enforcement, including deportation and detention of undocumented immigrants. We do not work for E.R.O.”
As recently as December, Palantir denied it played any role in family separation by again claiming that it only worked with HSI, not ERO. Even if that were true, it would still be involved in family separation: it has been clear since 2017 that ERO regularly uses Palantir's technology for its deportation operations.
In any case, HSI is intimately involved in deportations and workplace raids, according to none other than the head of HSI. Under Trump, workplace raids have not only quadrupled but grown larger as Palantir's technology enables larger dragnet operations that arrest dozens or hundreds of people at once.
In 2018, ICE made nearly ten times as many immigration arrests at workplaces than the previous year. Under Derek Benner, head of HSI, the strategy of targeting "illegal employment" became integral to the agency's mission.
The most well-known example of a workplace raid enabled by Palantir's technology might be the series of Mississippi raids that arrested 680 people in one day. Families were torn apart by those raids, which detained and deported parents. In just one example, two children were left alone for eight days after ICE arrested both of their parents during the August 7 raids. To this day, parents arrested in that raid are still detained.
Yet another example can be found in documents released in May 2019 that showed Palantir technology was used in ICE operations targeting unaccompanied children and their families. During the 2017 trial program described in the documents, 443 people were arrested.
"The truth is that it's not [complex], it's a very simple issue, because their work with and for ICE has been extensively documented and the actions of ICE under the current administration have also been extensively documented," Gonazalez told Motherboard. "This is about human rights violations, people being arrested at work, separated from their children, detained in inhumane conditions, all facilitated by Palantir's software."
When Karp’s “complexity” defense fails, he tends to fall back on self-professed progressive values. Karp appeals to checks and balances, celebrates Western values, and extols elections. When the law is violated, the rule of law imposes checks and balances. When those are compromised, Western values kick in like an immune system to defend the body politic. And when all else fails, we go to the polls to choose a new leader.
"The core mission of our company always was to make the West, especially America, the strongest in the world, the strongest it's ever been, for the sake of global peace and prosperity, and we feel like this year we really showed what that would mean," Karp told CNBC.
Karp—who has said he holds a doctorate in “what amounts to progressive thought—should understand his defense of the immoral acts (like a racist regime of deportations) in the name of the due process has little to do with progressivism. His complexity defense falls apart because it obscures, not answers, the question of what you’re supposed to do when something immoral is legal or something immoral is legal. “Complexity” has seen plenty of use to defend everything from Jim Crow’s legal system of racial terrorism to war crimes committed during American invasions. In those cases, as now, it is always being used to distract from the real question: why is this immoral thing legal? And why does the moral choice require breaking the law?
Karp, the CEO of a dystopian technology company, even appeals to our general skepticism of technology to defend his company’s actions. In the interview, he tells CNBC that he thinks “the small island in Silicon Valley that would love to decide what you eat, how you eat, and monetize all your data, should not also decide who lives in your country and under what conditions. There are elections, there are rules, they should be enforced.”
By seemingly refusing to make a choice and appeal to vague notions of “complexity,” Karp is making a choice—to preserve and strengthen ICE’s reign of terror. Karp is actively empowering an agency and administration to pursue racist policies and expand its scope at the cost of children and their families. At least, now, he seems to have finally admitted to some of it.
Palantir did not immediately respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.