Last Monday, Palantir Technologies—a company with a multi-million dollar contract with ICE—hosted an ethics tabletop exercise at Duke asking participants to wrestle with ethical dilemmas such as, “Can you save the lives of 10,000 people without jeopardizing the freedoms of 100,000?” Palantir also participated the next day at TechConnect, seeking to network with Duke computer science and engineering students.
Palantir is a data analytics company that provides ICE with technology that is used in the surveillance, tracking and ultimately deportation of immigrants. ICE uses Palantir’s Integrated Case Management (ICM) to scour local, regional, state and federal databases for utilities data, healthcare provider information, live cellphone records and other information that is used to build profiles on immigrants and undocumented individuals. Unaccompanied minors apprehended at the border are logged into the ICM system, discouraging family members from claiming their children out of fear of background checks. The end result is these children remain detained for longer periods of time.
It doesn’t stop there. Palantir also built the FALCON Search and Analysis (FALCON-SA) system that ICE uses as part of immigration workplace raids, including raids last year that targeted almost one hundred 7-Elevens—one of the largest ICE raids at the time. ICE also uses FALCON-SA to identify and visualize an individual’s web of connections and relationships, enabling the government to expand its surveillance dragnet.
Given Palantir’s reprehensible track record, a number of Duke students protested and distributed flyers about Palantir’s connections to ICE at both events last week. Students refused to stand idly by as Palantir shamelessly treated ethics as a mere hypothetical game while ICE simultaneously uses its technology to jeopardize the freedoms of thousands of actual people.
Students rejected complicity with ICE’s detention and deportation machine by pledging in a petition to withhold their labor from Palantir and other companies that constitute the agency’s technological and logistical backbone. Notably, although some of the Palantir representatives present claimed to find ICE’s enforcement work reprehensible, they had no qualms with calling Duke police on demonstrating students—twice.
By allowing Palantir to run an ethics exercise and recruit students at TechConnect, Duke University gives a platform to and legitimizes companies that are complicit in the surveillance, detention and deportation of immigrants and undocumented communities at the hands of ICE. The claim that Duke “values its students no matter their background or immigration status” sounds hollow in the context of the institution’s failure to prioritize the safety of its undocumented and immigrant students.
However, the Pratt School of Engineering, Department of Computer Science, Career Center and Duke University at large still have the ability to terminate their relationship with Palantir as long as it continues to maintain its contract with ICE. Over 2,000 students from at least 17 colleges and counting have been demonstrating at Palantir information sessions and their schools’ career fairs, demanding that their institutions cease their ties with Palantir. UC Berkeley’s Privacy Law Scholars Conference decided not to seek financial support from the company. Lesbians Who Tech returned the 15,000 dollars it received from Palantir’s sponsorship of its conference. And the Grace Hopper Celebration, the world’s largest gathering of women in technology—which Duke University sponsors and numerous Duke students attend every year—dropped Palantir as a sponsor.
Rallying under the calls for #NoTech4ICE and to #AbolishICE, organizations across the country such as Mijente, Coalition to Close the Concentration Camps, Jews for Racial & Economic Justice and Never Again Action have also demonstrated against Palantir—and other complicit companies like Amazon—for their role in facilitating the separation of families, detention of immigrants and deportation of people.
Duke would be in good company if it ceases its relationship with Palantir and chooses to live up to its purported mission statement of developing ethical leadership in its students and helping those who suffer.
But beyond Duke University itself, Duke students need to muster the moral backbone to take a stand against not just Palantir but also Amazon, Microsoft, Dell, McKinsey & Co, Wayfair and numerous other companies that have contracts with ICE and are therefore complicit in enabling white supremacy and white nationalism.
I sympathize deeply with students anxious about survival under capitalism and finding work that helps them secure financial stability, pay off their loans and support their families. But my sympathy ends when students prioritize profits and personal gain—“but Palantir pays $43 an hour!”—over humanity and compassion for others. In any case, if we want to take an ethical stand in a profoundly unethical world, we must be prepared to make real, material sacrifices.
Last week, Palantir and its defenders—some of them my fellow peers—argued that we are “emotionally misguided” and that these issues require more “nuance.” If “logic and reason” are used to justify the concentration camps at the border, the deaths of children, and the tearing apart of families, what value do they have?
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If “nuance” means Palantir will claim that its ICE contracts don’t negate their “good” work with the Department of Justice, FBI, and US military, what meaningful resistance does it pose to the oppression of immigrants and undocumented communities?
If emotion and outrage give people the strength to demand the abolition of ICE, to physically block ICE vans, to link their arms together to block ICE headquarters, to put their very bodies upon the gears to stop ICE’s odious machine, then I know we are the ones bending the long moral arc of the universe towards justice.
I close with an “ethical dilemma” of my own for Duke University and my fellow students. The concentration camps at US-Mexico border have been compared to Nazi concentration camps. Many people ask themselves what they would have done during the Holocaust.
Today, we live in a time of rising fascism in America. In Nazi Germany, there was IBM. In America, there is Palantir. So, in the face of oppression and injustice right here and right now, what you will do?
Annie Yang is a Trinity senior. Her column, “planting seeds,” runs on alternate Mondays.