Secretive Tech Company Palantir Doubles Down on Its ICE Contracts

By Taylor.Hatmaker@thedailybeast.com (Taylor Hatmaker)
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty

One of tech’s most secretive companies is attracting a fresh round of unwanted attention. A new report in The Washington Post details internal unrest over Palantir’s work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, likely the most contentious corner of the federal government outside of the White House. 

Palantir employees reportedly confronted the company’s CEO, Alex Karp, over its work with ICE last year as more than 200 Palantir workers signed a letter objecting to the data company’s facilitation of the Trump administration’s aggressive immigration policy. The company employs around 2,500 full-time workers, many of whom “have debated the ICE contracts in town hall meetings, office hallways, Slack channels and email threads,” according to the Post.

Palantir provides ICE with its Investigative Case Management (ICM) software, which allows the immigration enforcement agency to cross-reference criminal databases, employment information, and other relevant case management data.

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A handful of the biggest tech companies have faced employee protests and internal backlash over work with the federal government in the last year. Both in Silicon Valley and beyond, activist pockets of tech workers have pressured their employers to reject certain kinds of work—often defense contracts—due to ethical objections. 

Unlike larger tech companies with consumer-facing products, Palantir lives and dies by its work with the government. This week, Palantir renewed a contract with ICE that could bring in $49 million over three years. That amount was revealed through a redaction mistake in the contract document, which was posted to a public federal database.

In spite of the internal dissent, Karp showed no signs of backing down, defending his company’s choice of contracts. In a well-timed interview with Bloomberg published Thursday, Karp, who supported Hillary Clinton in the last election, reiterated that his values mirror progressives “on most issues.” He stated his support for “a fair but rigorous immigration policy,” calling the Trump administration’s family separation policy a “really tough, complex, jarring moral issue.”

Karp’s politics might seem to align with some aspects of at least superficially left-leaning Silicon Valley, but he acknowledged that his company’s work makes it an outsider. “We’ve been unpopular in the Valley,” Karp told Bloomberg. “And in 10 years, we’re going to be unpopular in the Valley.” 

The Palantir CEO’s position on his company’s politically divisive work has become a familiar refrain in Silicon Valley in recent months. 

“Silicon Valley is telling the average American ‘I will not support your defense needs’ while selling products to countries that are adversarial to America,” Karp told CNBC in January. “That is a loser position."

While companies like Palantir and Anduril have taken a patriotic posture to justify their defense work, Facebook has started echoing the same language to make an argument that its businesses be allowed to grow unfettered in the interest of U.S. technological dominance over China. Palantir founder and chairman Peter Thiel—who also sits on Facebook’s board—has been an active voice arguing for American AI dominance over China. Like the president, Thiel has recently taken to throwing jabs at Google over the company’s unaggressive stance toward China. 

The reality of internal dissent can be difficult to parse, particularly within tech companies with internally heterogenous politics and many tens of thousands of employees. At Google, a company with roughly 100,000 employees, an internal petition with 4,000 signatures called for the company to form “a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology.” In the end, the company backed away from a potentially lucrative Defense Department contract known as Project Maven. The work would have leveraged Google’s knowledge of artificial intelligence to refine drone targeting systems. 

While Google course corrected, other tech companies have continued to pursue potentially controversial federal contracts undeterred. Jostling for federal defense work picked up in recent months as tech companies vied for the Pentagon’s multiyear $10 billion Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure cloud computing contract, or “JEDI”—an unprecedented industry prize for which Amazon and Microsoft are finalists.

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