Public Records Request Nets User's Manual For Palantir's Souped-Up Surveillance Software
from the big-data,-tiny-accountability dept
Palantir is the 800-pound gorilla of data analytics. It has created a massive surveillance apparatus that pulls info from multiple sources to give law enforcement convenient places to dip into the data stream. Law enforcement databases may focus on criminals, but Palantir’s efforts focus on everyone. Whatever can be collected is collected. Palantir provides both the data and the front end, making it easy for government agencies to not only track criminal suspects, but everyone they’ve ever associated with.
Palantir is big. But being the biggest player in the market doesn’t exactly encourage quality work or accountability. Multiple problems have already been noticed by the company’s numerous law enforcement customers — including the company’s apparent inability to responsibly handle data — but complaints from agencies tied into multi-year contracts are pretty easy to ignore. Palantir says it provides “actionable data.” Sounds pretty cool, but in practice this means things like cops firing guns at innocent people because the software spat out faulty suspect/vehicle descriptions.
Agencies must see the value in Palantir’s products because few seem willing to ditch these data analytics packages. The company does a fairly good job dropping a usable interface on top of its data haystacks. It sells well. And it’s proprietary, which means Palantir can get into the policing business without actually having to engage in the accountability and openness expected of government agencies.
Fortunately for the public, government agencies still have to respond to public records requests — even if the documents sought detail private vendors’ offerings. Vice has obtained part of a user’s manual for Palantir Gotham, which is used by a number of state and federal agencies. This software appears to be used by “fusion centers,” the DHS-created abominations that do serious damage to civil liberties but produce very little usable intelligence.
The manual [PDF] seems to be written for the California law enforcement agencies that work with local fusion centers. The amount of data Palantir’s software provides access to is stunning:
The Palantir user guide shows that police can start with almost no information about a person of interest and instantly know extremely intimate details about their lives. The capabilities are staggering, according to the guide:
If police have a name that’s associated with a license plate, they can use automatic license plate reader data to find out where they’ve been, and when they’ve been there. This can give a complete account of where someone has driven over any time period.
With a name, police can also find a person’s email address, phone numbers, current and previous addresses, bank accounts, social security number(s), business relationships, family relationships, and license information like height, weight, and eye color, as long as it’s in the agency’s database.
The software can map out a person’s family members and business associates of a suspect, and theoretically, find the above information about them, too.
For all of this to work, Palantir needs data. Lots and lots of data. The software pulls info from law enforcement databases, public records, and other sources the manual doesn’t discuss. It mentions email addresses and bank records as responsive to searches. All of this is dumped into the user-friendly front end, allowing government agencies to recreate people’s lives and movements. Another couple of clicks and officers can start doing the same thing for every person linked — however tenuously — to the original target.
There’s been a lot of discussion of Palantir’s contributions to the surveillance state. These documents finally give the public a glimpse of the front end. That’s a lot of power at a number of people’s fingerprints and it’s being deployed with zero oversight or accountability.