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Protests, canceled sponsorship: The story behind Duke and Palantir, a recruiter with ICE contracts

A data analytics company that recruits at Duke has been the subject of recent controversy and student opposition over its contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Students protested Palantir Technologies Sept. 24 while the company participated in TechConnect, an annual networking event for engineering and computer science students, and hosted an ethics workshop the day before. 

According to senior Cat Jeon, one of the students who helped to organize the TechConnect protest, “a lot of people were deterred” and left Palantir’s line at the event. She said that many students had not previously known about Palantir's relationship to ICE and were shocked to learn of it.

“Another girl and I had little handouts, and we basically went to every single person in the [Palantir] line, giving them our flyer and saying, 'Hey, do you know this about Palantir?'” Jeon said.

What happened at the TechConnect protest

The day before the TechConnect protest, a group of around five students held a small demonstration at Palantir’s ethics workshop. The protesters, in addition to a few more interested students like Jeon, scrambled afterwards at 11pm to brainstorm ideas for organizing a larger TechConnect protest the next day. One of the things they decided to do was place red posters over a few building signs, such as one reading "Humanity over Profits" at the Fitzpatrick building, Jeon added. 

At the TechConnect event, the protestors took shifts in small groups of four, their main goal being to block the recruiting efforts of the target companies. They aimed to protest multiple companies, including Amazon, as it provides cloud-computing services to ICE, Jeon noted. However, she said the protesters prioritized Palantir for their "direct connection to ICE.” 

The Palantir representative seemed "angry" and called the police on the protesters, Jeon said. 

During the time it took the police to arrive, the line had dwindled down to just one or two people, she added. When the police arrived, Jeon said that she and the other protesters had to relocate to outside the building, since under Duke policy students must file with the University Center Activities and Events (UCAE) Office before protesting.

“At that point, it's not really doing any kind of antagonistic thing anymore because it would be approved by the University,” she said, explaining why the group did not register their protest.

Outside, they continued their efforts, shouting things like "No Tech for ICE," and "Palantir, you work for ICE," until the next shift showed up and went inside to protest. Those who were in the second shift of protestors were also asked to leave after another police call was made.

Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, affirmed Duke’s commitment to protecting the ability of students “to express their beliefs and positions in accordance with our policies that protect the safety and rights of the Duke community” in an email to The Chronicle.

Palantir renewed a $42 million contract with ICE in August. Under the contract, ICE will continue using Palantir's Investigative Case Management system, which allows agents to access and sort data on individuals suspected of violating immigration laws. Heightened media attention toward this connection has stirred up student protests and resistance to Palantir's recruitment efforts at Duke. 

ICE used Palantir’s ICM system in a 2017 operation targeting the family members of unaccompanied migrant children trying to cross the border, according to an ICE document obtained by The Intercept. ICE also used Palantir’s FALCON mobile app, which has a contract set to renew Nov. 27, to carry out its nationwide investigation of 7-Eleven stores last year, according to WNYC

A spokesperson for Palantir's recruitment division told The Chronicle that the company has been recruiting at Duke for several years now, holding several different types of events on campus each year. As one of Palantir’s 10 target schools, Duke students have been great candidates and added value to the company, according to the spokesperson, and around 25 Duke graduates currently work at the company.

Sophomore Jeremy Carballo Pineda, a member of The Chronicle's Community Editorial Board, started an online petition on the day of Palantir’s ethics workshop asking Duke students to pledge not to work with Palantir while it continues to work with ICE.

"We will not apply for jobs at Palantir, we will not interview for jobs at Palantir, and we will not accept jobs at Palantir while the company is engaged in the business of deportation," the petition states. "We call on the company to cancel its contracts with ICE, and we call on all students to join us in withholding our talent from Palantir."

The petition, which has thus far collected 112 signatures, is part of a larger national "Students Pledge #NoTechForICE" campaign.

HackDuke cuts off Palantir

Student reactions to Palantir have extended beyond the two protests.

HackDuke, a national hack-a-thon focused on social good, has been co-sponsored by Palantir. After discovering Palantir’s collaboration with ICE a few weeks ago, the group unanimously voted to rescind the company as a sponsor for their November hack-a-thon.

“We do not believe they align with our goals and values, especially as we are a hackathon focused on social good,” junior Sam Chan, co-director of HackDuke, wrote in a message to The Chronicle.

Chan wrote in an email to The Chronicle that, after the group informed Palantir of its decision, the company asked to explain itself and address the group’s concerns with its privacy and civil liberties team.

According to a Palantir document on “Protecting privacy and civil liberties,” the team works to ensure that Palantir’s technologies meet the company’s mission of “protecting fundamental rights to privacy and civil liberties.”

Palantir also has a council on privacy and civil liberties composed of experts that further assist the company in “understanding and addressing the complex privacy and civil liberties issues surrounding the use of our platform to aggregate and analyze [data],” according to its website.

Chan wrote that HackDuke will not accept Palantir's offer to engage in further discussion.

“After talking to other hack-a-thon organizers who’ve dropped Palantir as a sponsor, it seems that they have similarly replied by asking to explain,” he wrote. “From what we know at least, the organizers usually don't take them up on the offer, and we will not as well.”

Palantir’s spokesperson, however, emphasized the company’s desire to have open and honest dialogue with students on the issue. They noted that it can be both productive and powerful to explain the company’s perspective and engage in conversations about the issues surrounding private technology companies working with the U.S. government.

The future of Palantir and Duke

Jeon and Chan both argued that Duke should drop its relationship to Palantir.

Chan wrote that Duke should cut off connections with Palantir not only out of concern for their public image but also to empower their students. For HackDuke, Chan wrote that empowering their participants means fostering an inclusive space, starting with the group’s corporate sponsorships.

In turn, Duke should also empower its students by enabling them to “develop professionally” and uphold “high ethical standards.”

"Duke needs to drop their connections with Palantir," Jeon said. "That means no recruitment, sponsorship, or partnerships here because that would effectively be challenging [Palantir’s] normative practices and their efforts to grow their work-base at elite universities."

Palantir’s spokesperson also said that the company intends to continue holding events at Duke for the remainder of the academic year.

Schoenfeld wrote that Palantir is still “welcome” to continue recruiting at Duke based on the university’s longstanding practice of providing opportunities for students to explore a diverse range of career and employment opportunities.

“Students can and should be able to make their own choices about their future work and given the wide range of backgrounds at Duke, we would expect there to be an equally wide range of interests,” he wrote.

Correction: The petition has collected 112 signatures, not 2,335. The latter number is the amount collected by the larger "Students Pledge #NoTechForICE" campaign. The Chronicle regrets the error.

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