Tech Company Palantir is Helping Trump Separate Families

Palantir Technologies was once one of Silicon Valley’s darlings. The U.S. data-analytics company had the financial backing of Peter Thiel and other Bay-Area billionaires; it was a combination of big data and big money that many thought couldn’t lose.

But the novelty of tech giants has worn off as big data has become synonymous with mass surveillance—and Palantir’s multimillion-dollar contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that aid in the horrendous human-rights abuses like family separations and deportations have sparked widespread outcry.

( Joe Brusky / Creative Commons )

Palantir has long claimed that its software isn’t used to aid in deportations, but research from the advocacy group Mijente and documents released under a Freedom of Information Act request show that ICE used a software Palantir created and sold to the agency to investigate and arrest the parents and sponsors of children who crossed the border alone. 

According to these documents, agents used Palantir software when unaccompanied minors were taken into ICE custody to build profiles of these children and their families, arresting any undocumented people they discovered in their investigations, including those who came forward to claim their children. Thanks to this software, ICE arrested at least 443 people during a three-month period.

Palantir’s software is also used extensively by Homeland Security Investigations, the ICE division responsible for workplace raids. Through Palantir contracts, ICE also has access to a nationwide license-plate location database, which it uses to track and conduct surveillance of individuals and family members in order to arrest and deport immigrants. Because of Palantir, all this information is at the fingertips of ICE agents responsible for mass deportations and other abuses. 

These investigations are a gross overreach that violate basic human rights, Fourth Amendment privacy rights and the internationally recognized right to seek asylum. That’s why Free Press has joined Mijente and other racial-justice and privacy-rights groups in demanding that Palantir stop aiding and abetting the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant agenda. 

The tech industry shouldn’t profit from the trauma and suffering of migrants and asylum seekers. Palantir isn’t the only company that promised a better world with big data and then sold its technology to authorities bent on violating our human rights. And it isn’t the only company now feeling the heat.

Just this week, immigrant rights activists disrupted a keynote speech given by Amazon’s chief technology officer at a company event in New York City, while hundreds of Amazon employees have signed onto a letter calling on founder Jeff Bezos to kick Palantir off of Amazon’s web hosting service. In 2018, hundreds of Salesforce employees urged CEO Mark Benioff to cancel the company’s contract with U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Microsoft employees banded together to pressure CEO Satya Nadella to end the company’s ICE contracts. Both executives have since spoken out against the separation of families at the border. But they continue to do business with those responsible for the abuse.

Pressure against Palantir is already having an impact: Hundreds of academics have signed on to a letter successfully urging the University of California’s Berkeley Center for Law & Technology to drop Palantir from its list of sponsors. “[T]ake the lead and refuse affiliation with a company that builds programs and tech tools to enable surveillance and profiling of immigrants,” the letter states. Organizers of the letter are targeting other schools that receive funding from the company.

If enough people speak out, we can force Palantir to stop working with ICE and set an example for others in Silicon Valley who think selling tech to human-rights abusers comes at zero cost.


Lucia Martinez is the digital campaign manager for Free Press, a nonprofit organization that fights for more just and equitable media and technology in the United States.