Archive for March 15th, 2017

Palantir, Peter Thiel, Big Data, and the DHS

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

San Francisco and Silicon Valley are among the centers of opposition to President Trump and his fascism, especially as it relates to restrictions on movement, border controls, immigration, and asylum.

Bay Area technology companies and their better-paid classes of employees like to think of themselves as building a better world that reflects the distinctive values that have attracted dreamers and futurists to this regionĀ  from across the country and around the world. But some of these companies are key developers and providers of “big data” tools for the opposite sort of “Brave New World“.

On Saturday, Edward Hasbrouck of the Identity Project was invited to speak to an ad hoc group of picketers outside the Pacific Heights mansion of Palantir Technologies founder and Trump supporter Peter Thiel (photo gallery from the SF Chronicle, video clip from KGO-TV; more photos from the East Bay Express).

As Anna Weiner reported in the New Yorker (“Why Protesters Gathered Outside Peter Thiel’s Mansion This Weekend“):

David Campos, a former member of the San Francisco board of supervisors, who emigrated from Guatemala, in 1985, stood on the brick stoop and raised a megaphone. “The reason we’re here is to call upon the people who are complicit in what Trump is trying to do,” he said. Clark echoed the sentiment. “If your company is complicit, it is time to fight that,” she said. Trauss, when it was her turn, addressed Thiel, wherever he was. “What happened to being a libertarian?” she asked. “What happened to freedom of movement for labor?”

Edward Hasbrouck, a consultant with the Identity Project, a civil-liberties group, took the stand, wearing a furry pink tiger-striped pussyhat. “The banality of evil today is the person sitting in a cubicle in San Francisco, or in Silicon Valley, building the tools of digital fascism that are being used by those in Washington,” he said. “We’ve been hearing back that there are a fair number of people at Palantir who are working really hard at convincing themselves that they’re not playing a role — they’re not the ones out on the street putting the cuffs on people. They’re not really responsible, even though they’re the ones who are building the technology that makes that possible.”

It’s easy to rationalize the creation of technological tools by saying that they can used for good as well as evil. But you can’t separate the work of tool-making from the ways those tools are being used. Palantir workers’ claims to “neutrality” resemble the claims made in defense of IBM and Polaroid and when they were making and selling “general purpose” computers, cameras, and ID-badge making machines to the South African government in the 1970s. None of this technology and equipment was inherently evil. But in South Africa, it was being used to administer the apartheid system of passbooks and permissions for travel, work, and residence.

The same goes for “big data” today. To understand what’s wrong with the work being done by Palantir for the US Department of Homeland Security, it’s necessary to look not just at what tools Palantir is building but at how and by whom they will be used; not just at the data tools but at the datasets to which they are applied, the algorithms they use, and the outcomes they are used to determine.

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