Over the past several days, mainstream news outlets such as Washington Post and New York Times have been carrying stories pertaining to the recent ouster of high officials in the Department of Homeland Security, which Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is a subsidiary of. The reasons for the purge are connected to refusal by these officials to sign off on a new round of ICE raids and detentions that President Trump has been proposing for some time now, a plan allegedly called “Operation Rocket Docket.”.
- 6/17 WaPo: Trump vows mass immigration arrests, removals of ‘millions of il—– ——–s’ starting next week
One group of actors that has gotten very little coverage, however, are the Big Tech/Data companies across America that are actively collaborating with ICE in helping locate, detain, and deport undocumented workers. Corporations like Amazon and Palantir, a data collection firm owned by the hard right wing, Trump-boosting oligarch Peter Thiel, have been sweeping up terabytes of data from public records, social media websites like Facebook and Twitter, and even the DMV to develop a map of where to find their targets. This was described in great detail by a 2018 Empower LLC report written in collaboration with Mijente, Immigrant Defense Project, and National Immigration Project titled Who’s Behind ICE?: The Tech Companies Fueling Deportations.
The operation, while technical, is also straightforward: Palantir collects the data, Amazon provides the storage space for the data to be accessed by ICE. Besides the obvious ghastly function of the arrangement, there is another disturbing fact here to consider. By accessing data located on a private cloud computing farm, Homeland Security and ICE are in practice privatizing their evidence and record keeping system. This makes the subpoena of records and legal obtaining of records via the discovery process of a judicial proceeding much more complicated.
Palantir, a shadowy corporation that has a relatively opaque profile in comparison with Amazon, has been covered for years by tech reporter and activist Barrett Brown. His work has revealed a web of intricate operations and corporate alliances with the American government that are truly disturbing when understood in connection with Donald Trump’s nativist agenda of state violence. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
AS: Barrett, you have been reporting on Palantir for a long time now and they feature in your forthcoming book My Glorious Defeats: Hacktivist, Narcissist, Anonymous. How does Palantir fit into your efforts?
BB: Palantir plays an ongoing role in the book. What no one knew until last year, when Christopher Wylie of Cambridge Analytica announced to the British Parliament what Cambridge Analytica had been doing with Palantir and [private mass-surveillance firm] Archimedes, was to what extent that the fears of activists were not sufficient, as in we didn’t know that these things that we were worried about being used against Western democracies would happen within just five years of the first scandal involving these big firms.
That surprised me.
In the past year and a half we have learned more and more about:
- What is Palantir willing to do? and
- How easy is it for Palantir to brush off these scandals when they get caught each time?
There is a lack of institutional memory in a press which should be following these things. Everyone from The Intercept to the New York Times frames their coverage of repeated and ongoing scandals in a way that doesn’t remind the readers that this company acts in bad faith. It’s a frightening thing to have watched this thing unfold slowly.
We’re not building a case against Palantir as a citizenry or as a press, instead we’re giving them an alcoholic’s dream of a million second chances and they are taking them.
AS: We have seen in the past week news about a forthcoming series of ICE raids this summer. We have this report from Empower LLC titled Who’s Behind ICE? that says “A handful of huge corporations, like Amazon Web Services and Palantir, have built a ‘revolving door’ to develop and entrench Silicon Valley’s role in fueling the incarceration and deportation regime.” Your thoughts?
BB: So this is exactly what concerned us from the start.
Palantir deals in information in an age when information is a driving force behind everything. It does this in a way that is of tremendous value to the modern surveillance state.
And then here we are learning (as we suspected) that Palantir has no problem engaging in practices that most Americans find horrendous. Americans as a whole recognize that the family separation policy is horrendous and here they are, happily participating in it. That should not be a surprise considering one of their spin-off companies, Anduril, is primarily in the business of developing AI for drones to catch immigrants.
This is just a small part of what they are going to end up doing over time when you have your fingers in predictive policing in New Orleans, electioneering with Archimedes, UN food programs, and catching immigrants. And there’s no one even at the UN saying ‘wait, this is the same company that has been caught doing this and this and this.’
- Wired Magazine 8/2017 : How Peter Thiel’s Secretive Data Company Pushed Into Policing
AS: Let’s talk Palantir founder/owner Peter Thiel.
BB: He’s one of these “Dark Enlightenment” types. He shares these somewhat nihilistic, post-liberal/post-humanist ideals but he is not just some guy who is writing blog posts about it. He’s in a position to exercise what he believes, which is extraordinarily dangerous to this country, to this republic, and to the very notion of informed consent itself.
He looks at how this citizenry, the press, and Congress forgets, how poor they are at long-term planning, how they are incapable of contending with basic information that they themselves can put out. And he comes to the conclusion that someone has to rule humanity and it will have to be he and people of his ilk. This was unimaginable in 1995.
AS: We’re talking about the Silicon Valley Libertarian guru, correct?
BB: He identified himself as a Libertarian but backed Trump.
He really is less a Libertarian and more of a technocratic feudalist. That’s probably the general mentality and it is shared with many in the military-intelligence industrial complex.
That’s part of what makes him dangerous. It is very hard for people to take his ideas, his transhumanism, or anything that sounds like science fiction seriously.
That’s a problem because, whether or not it sounds silly, it is very hard to assess what someone like Thiel will do as he continues to gain power.