Tech by VICE

300 Californian Cities Secretly Have Access to Palantir

Company contracts with a fusion center reveal that nearly 8 million people in northern California are subject to Palantir surveillance tools, a Motherboard investigation finds.

by Caroline Haskins
Jul 12 2019, 3:13pm

Palantir, a surveillance and data mining company founded by right-wing billionaire Peter Thiel, is best known for being a contractor for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, other state and federal agencies, and corporations like JP Morgan and Airbus. The company created ICE’s Investigative Case Management system, which catalogs migrants in U.S. detention, which helps to build records that can be used against migrants in court.

As reported by Bloomberg last year, the police departments for New York, New Orleans, Chicago, and Los Angeles also use Palantir’s software to create “digital dragnets” of individual people in an attempt to predict crime before it happens.

Motherboard obtained documents via public record requests which reveal that the scope of Palantir’s influence in California is significantly larger than previously documented. Payment records indicate that between January 2012 and March 2017, about three hundred cities, collectively home to about 7.9 million people, had access to Palantir’s Gotham service through the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC), which is run through the Department of Homeland Security.

The NCRIC is a regional law enforcement facility that combines the resources of 14 California counties: Del Norte county, Mendocino county, Sonoma county, Lake county, Napa county, Marin county, San Francisco county, San Mateo county, Santa Cruz county, Monterey county, San Benito county, Santa Clara county, Alameda county, and Contra Costa county.

Gotham is one of Palantir’s two services, and the other service is Palantir Foundry. These 300 police departments could request data from Palantir, and an NCRIC agent would retrieve this data and provide it to local police. Per this arrangement, none of these departments have to disclose the fact that they have access to Palantir.

As shown by Palantir user guides obtained by Motherboard, Palantir aggregates all of the information available about a person. This includes emails, phone numbers, current and previous addresses, social security number(s), business relationships, license plates, and travel history as captured by license plate cameras. The tool also maps that person’s “possible relatives” and “possible associates,” or their friends and family.

The NCRIC still uses Palantir, according to a phone call with a NCRIC spokesperson. However, the organization’s contract with Palantir expires this year, at which point it will replace Palantir with SAS, a different data analytics company.

In an email to Motherboard, a Palantir spokesperson said that the NCRIC has a license to continue to use Palantir’s software indefinitely. This means that even after a Palantir contract period expires, the benefactor can continue to use Palantir forever.

The NCRIC investigates "terrorist operations, major drug trafficking organizations and other major criminal activities," according to its website. A NCRIC spokesperson said in a phone call that the organization, which employs about 80 people, uses Palantir for its intelligence management system, which is a “core” part of every NCRIC investigation.

“The intelligence management system that we use is used for all investigations,” the spokesperson said. “It’s that core piece of coordination of supporting those long term investigations, and evaluations of tips and leads and complaints that we receive.”

The NCRIC, which was established by the Northern California High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Executive Board in 2007, receives federal money from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). According to a public document from Homeland Security Grants Management, this federal money finances personnel, computers and servers, and training programs for cybersecurity, domestic terrorism, and violent extremism investigations. A NCRIC spokesperson said in a phone call that all of the NCRIC’s funding comes from the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The NCRIC specializes in investigating state crimes that appear to be “large” or “organizational” in scale, which mainly include terrorism and drug trafficking. However, The NCRIC gives local police departments access to technology they wouldn’t be able to afford or implement on their own.

A NCRIC spokesperson said in a phone call that local police departments can contact the organization for assistance on any case. The NCRIC will then assign an agent who will use Palantir, and possibly other tools, to get the requested information.

“Everything we do starts with a subject that’s engaged in some sort of illegal activity or potentially something that’s perceived as being illegal,” the spokesperson said.

Palantir Guide from the NCRIC obtained by Motherboard.
Image: Palantir Guide from the NCRIC obtained by Motherboard.
Palantir Guide from the NCRIC obtained by Motherboard.
Image: Palantir Guide from the NCRIC obtained by Motherboard.

Palantir has been described by experts as a “secondary surveillance network,” since it maps interpersonal relationships between individuals, even those who aren't suspected of any criminal activity. The company is named after an omniscient orb from the Lord of the Rings novels allowing its users to look into the past, and into the future.

“When we at the ACLU hear ‘we need lots of amazing new powers in order to protect you,’” ACLU policy analyst Jay Stanley wrote about Palantir in 2011, “our response is, ‘watch out.’”

The city council of Oakland, California—one of the cities who has access to NCRIC resources—is voting on whether or not to ban the "acquiring, obtaining, retaining, requesting, or accessing" of facial recognition technology on July 16. In a recent report to Oakland's Public Safety Committee, Chief of Police Anne Kirkpatrick argued against a total prohibition of facial recognition technology. She wrote that the county sheriff’s office has a shared “in-house facial recognition system” through the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center.

Palantir does not offer facial recognition software. However, facial recognition technology from another company can be combined with data mined using Palantir. The result is a surveillance net that’s ubiquitous in scale.

All of the documents obtained by Motherboard for this story are public and viewable on DocumentCloud.