Op-eds, Opinions

Van Horn ’21, Mendez-Flores ’20, Caver ’21, Sanchez-Strauss ’21, Donahue ’20, Hahn ’20: Brown University must cut its contract with Palantir

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Op-Ed Contributors
Friday, October 25, 2019

Palantir Technologies, a software company based out of Silicon Valley, recently renewed a three-year contract to provide crucial products to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The tech company makes data analysis software that ICE has employed in conducting workplace raids and in committing state violence at the US-Mexico border. Despite these offenses, the University maintains a financial contract with  Palantir. Given the company’s documented ties to human rights abuses against immigrant communities, Brown Immigrant Rights Coalition (BIRC) demands that the University cut its contract with Palantir.

Palantir allocates $15,000 annually to Brown University’s Department of Computer Science through the Industry Partners Program, an initiative that allows certain companies to recruit on campus through tech talks and career fairs. BIRC echoes the call of The Herald’s Editorial Page Board for the department to publicly clarify its policies and to create an ethical standard for corporate partnerships. In creating this ethical standard, it is imperative that the department cut its ties to Palantir.

In an attempt to pressure the CS Department, BIRC has circulated a petition among students and alums and has reached out to CS faculty and administrators. Additionally, allies participated in a protest at the Career Fair to call attention to certain companies’ financial and professional ties to ICE. The petition has received over 260 student signatures. The department has been opaque about its involvement with Palantir: It has removed it from an official listing of IPP companies online, presumably to avoid widespread criticism. Since the department has not released any official statement declaring that it has cut ties to Palantir, we are assuming that it continues to maintain Palantir in its IPP contracts.

The technology supplied by Palantir is crucial to ICE’s continued operation. According to language from the company’s renewed contract with ICE, “Palantir, the software developer, is the only firm able to ensure the continued effectiveness of the ICM system.” The Investigative Case Management system allows ICE agents to screen immigrants at the border; this operation, designed specifically to help ICE dissuade children from joining their families in the United States, resulted in the arrests of at least 443 people over 90 days in 2017. Palantir has received widespread national criticism for its close relationship with ICE. Immigrant rights groups like Mijente have called on universities across the country to cut their ties with the company. Hundreds of Palantir employees have publicly protested their company’s relationship with ICE. Earlier this year, hundreds of academics pressured UC Berkeley to drop Palantir as a sponsor of a privacy scholars conference. In late August, Lesbians Who Tech dropped Palantir as a sponsor of its annual conference, citing its ties to immigration enforcement. Just two days later, the Grace Hopper Celebration, the largest global conference for women in technology, dropped Palantir as a sponsor, just hours after learning of its role in human rights abuses.

There have been similar protests and petitions at universities across the country, including the University of California-Berkeley, Stanford University, Yale, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University. Former Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner decried the company in Forbes, writing that “when firms like Palantir compete for lucrative government contracts, it is incumbent on them to take seriously the human rights risks that are associated with their services. To date, Palantir has failed to assume this essential responsibility.”

Alex Karp, the CEO of Palantir, has dismissed these criticisms, stating that “immigration policy is not a software challenge; it’s a political one.” The claim of technological neutrality — the belief that technology is a neutral tool that can be divorced from politics — should sound extremely familiar. It is reminiscent of the assertion by Warren Kanders, CEO of the tear gas manufacturing company Safariland Group, that “as with any product, ultimate responsibility for its use falls on the individuals involved in their use.”  Kanders, whose products have been used to suppress protests on the US-Mexico border, claims technological neutrality in order to justify the violence and harm of his company’s products. This claim is neither intellectually credible nor benign. It ignores the fact that state violence depends on available technology and on the corporations that provide that technology.

The Brown CS department seems to be re-evaluating the broader philosophy of technological neutrality, but this has not extended to the IPP program. This past spring, the department announced its plan to hire 10 Ethics TAs to further a new initiative called “Responsible Computer Science.”   These TAs are charged with developing curricula and facilitating discussions around the ethical use of technology. As Department Chair and Professor of Computer Science Ugur Cetintemel told the The Herald, “We want our concentrators to think about the ethical and societal implications of what they do, not as an afterthought but as another fundamental dimension they should consider as they develop their work.” By hiring ethics TAs, the department has implicitly acknowledged that those who wield technological tools are responsible for their impact, an argument with which we agree. So, the department’s blatant hypocrisy in implementing new Ethics programming while continuing to support Palantir’s policies and presence on campus cannot be dismissed.

We believe that the department cannot embrace an ethical commitment to technology without cutting its contract with the corporation partially responsible for tremendous violence against immigrant communities across the country. The department should honor its commitment to ethical education and sever ties with Palantir.

Sara Van Horn ’21 can be reached at sara_van_horn@brown.edu, Angel Mendez-Flores ’20 can be reached at angel_mendez-flores@brown.edu, Brendan Caver ’21 can be reached at brendan_caver@brown.edu, Caiya Sanchez-Strauss ’21 can be reached at caiya_sanchez_strauss@brown.edu, Kielan Donahue ’20 can be reached at kielan_donahue@brown.edu, and Peter Hahn ’20 can be reached at peter_hahn@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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