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.

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Companies: palantir

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Comments on “Public Records Request Nets User's Manual For Palantir's Souped-Up Surveillance Software”

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Krenz Erzgebirge says:

The "other sources" are GOOGLE, FACEBOOK, and other corps...

Which, not coincidentally, have the record of your visits to pirates sites, and by magic of javascript and the otherwise entirely unnecessary databases that browsers now have, record which torrent and other links you click on / download.

Those provide enough for not just ISP to stop service, but for actual warrants to enter premises and seize. That they don’t at present is only a matter of getting all the mechanisms in place. Then they’ll do another limited hangout, rather like this one, to make it generally known, and accepted.

Google and Facebook will rat you out for a quarter, kids. Stop letting them gain power and glean so much data.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: The "other sources" are GOOGLE, FACEBOOK, and other corps...

First off, from what I know, Google, Facebook et al only hand over those records to law enforcement, and only when asked. So unless you’ve been previously flagged by some government agency (including ICE or CBP), they don’t have those records in Palantir’s database.

Also, if you block Google and Facebook from running javascript in your browser and block their beacons, they have no clue who you are or where you are. I know this because every once in a while I turn things on to test, and they usually think I’m some other person regularly residing in some other physical location when I do.

The real "other sources" to worry about are ISPs. AT&T and Verizon definitely populate this database, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they provided near real-time data.

Since the IRS also uses Palantir, it wouldn’t surprise me if all of the IRS data was also accessible to Palantir.

All this to say: I think I’d be more worried about the malicious javascripts embedded in ad frames on torrent sites than I would be about Google and Facebook’s easily disableable tracking beacons and monitoring scripts. Don’t visit such sites with javascript enabled, at least for third parties.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: The "other sources" are GOOGLE, FACEBOOK, and othe

record which torrent and other links you click on / download.

There’s no need for your browser to help with that. Most BitTorrent clients publish their IP addresses so others can download from them. (It’s kind of possible to refuse to participate in that, but it’s unpopular and can result in bans.)

That Anonymous Coward says:

Re: What's in a name...

Its not easy seeing the future…

"Palantir (named for that creepy orb from Lord of the Rings that lets you spy on hobbit beauty queens changing), got $196 Million in funding. Let’s ignore the absolute failure of the people behind it, and how they planned to use the tech to undermine Wikileaks for private customers. And they would have gotten away with it, if not for those pesky kids in trendy masks. So a company, who has no problem creating fake information, is being funded to gather more ‘real’ information for the government or anyone else with a briefcase full of cash. "

People are upset about facial rec being rolled out and its problems…
Has anyone actually mentioned how many flaws are on credit reports?
But TAC why bring in credit reports?
Because its a massive database of allegedly correct records that companies use to size you up… and its full of errors that even knowing they exist is a PITA to get corrected.
Now put the records in a private system, connect 2 people with the same name as 1 person…. hilarity!!! does not ensue.
People pay LifeLock to try and stop ID theft & they offer upto a Million dollars in help to fix the problem if needed. If I can’t prove I wasn’t in CA and opened 400 credit cards without a million dollars of helpers what chance do I stand against Palantir?

I mean its not like the founder is on record admitting creating fake information for the highest bidder… oh wait.

We have thousands of stories of cops misusing the smaller databases they have access to to stalk ex’s, cute drivers, anyone who pissed them off…. so we’re gonna roll out a bigger database for them to troll.

We have stories about ‘the good guys’ putting their wives on the no-fly lists because it was cheaper than a divorce to keep her from returning home.

So what could possibly go wrong with a massive database with no oversight & no controls???

ECA (profile) says:

Not a conspiracy theorist...BUT.

As time goes on and the Internet expands..

Why is it that Iv heard this before?
Some of the OLD theories, are happening, CAN happen more easily.. and probably happened long ago, also.

Can you see a chip in your TV that has the ability to Absorb reflected Light created from your TV, and sitting there waiting for someone to Hack/USE that chip from a remote Outside your home or from the internet connection IN YOUR HOME???

Can you notice that little Black box on the telephone pole that has a Camera hole in the side, Watching you or your neighbor??

Ever note that the street cleaner that comes down the street 1-4 times per month, has a Little box on it, that collects Lic plate numbers??(just a camera that the data is later run threw a computer) the cleanest streets in PTLD, is generally where the Gangs hangout..

Did you know that there is a Cheap little box at the top of some Poles that Just Listens, to the area. To help police know if something is happening?

Why is so much of what we dreaded in the past, happening??

Anonymous Coward says:

Based upon past performance of many gather it all data warehouses of individuals, I imagine this is also full of errors. When one discovers an error, how easy will it be to correct it? Will there be procedures in place and real people to deal with handling the submittal, reviewing same and writing up conclusions?

I never have had to but I understand the credit bureaus must provide a mechanism to correct errors. I doubt this will similar in that it will be impossible to correct.

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