Everyone, from CS 61A students to tech executives, seems to be enamored with the promises of “Big Data.” Ten years ago, the five largest corporations in the world included giants of oil, utilities and household goods. Today, all five are tech companies, and their raison d’etre is user data. As their influence invades more parts of our lives, another word has entered the public lexicon: privacy.
The threat of the unfettered accumulation of our personal information can often feel enigmatic, like a far-off problem for some future dystopia. But the consequences of privacy violations are not hypothetical. For years, data technology has served to expedite human rights violations. Currently, tech companies are expediting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, actions. These firms build technological tools to surveil, track and detain migrants. In contracting with Palantir, one of the tech companies collaborating with ICE, UC Berkeley is complicit in immigrant detention and deportation.
We are living through a major societal and political shift. Suddenly, market forces are embedded in almost every aspect of our lives and are seeking new points of entry. We are inundated with advertisements at every turn — and they are increasingly hard to parse out from innocent or authentic content. In order to flood us with evermore relevant advertising, corporations collect and store all the personal information they can get their hands on. This is the Big Data industry — we’ve all been warned of its potential threat.
This shift forces us to consider the psychological impact of how capitalism has pervaded every part of our lives. Our personal information has become the most valuable commodity on the market, marking a pivotal turning point in economic history. This commodification of our social lives and our personal details has been coined “surveillance capitalism,” and it affects all of us.
Despite this pervasiveness, for most of us, the threat associated with Big Data lies in what-ifs. It’s frightening to wonder what certain actors might do with so much knowledge about our private lives; we might imagine an Orwellian surveillance state or a world in which we can no longer distinguish between art and advertising.
But for the most marginalized, the threat of Big Data is far more tangible. Tech giants are enabling the Trump administration to ramp up deportations of migrants and refugees by providing detailed webs of information on migrant families.
The company Palantir has skyrocketed to infamy this year for its role in powering ICE. Palantir sells two tools to ICE. The first, Investigative Case Management allows ICE to create a network of highly detailed profiles of subjects and their families. In 2017, ICE used ICM to investigate and deport the families and sponsors of children who crossed the border alone. The operation resulted in the arrests of at least 443 people over 90 days and prevented unaccompanied children from being reunited with their families.
Its second tool, FALCON, aggregates data to track a subject in real time. The tool is used by ICE agents leading workplace raids, which increased by 650% during President Donald Trump’s first year in office. These raids target people just for being undocumented, and they arrest thousands every year. FALCON was used in a set of Mississippi raids in early August, when almost 700 people were arrested. This marked the largest immigration raid in a decade, and one of the largest in American history.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is overseeing human rights violations that should horrify all of us. The raids that Palantir enables instill terror in immigrant communities. In detention, migrants suffer severe trauma, inadequate medical care and sexual assault. The United States. is running “concentration camps” on the southern border, according to numerous experts.
ICE has called Palantir “mission critical” to its operation –– the company directly enables ICE’s actions. For months, activists and student groups such as Cal Bears Against ICE have called on the company to drop its ICE contracts, but it hasn’t budged. In August, ICE renewed a contract for ICM worth nearly $50 million.
There is a critical need for the state to better regulate tech companies and protect consumers. But in relying on the U.S. government to set technology’s limits, we make room for something far more sinister: human rights violations that the state itself perpetuates. Just because this violence is state-sanctioned does not mean it is just. Those who hope to support migrant justice must hold these corporations accountable directly and join in demanding Palantir call off its contracts with ICE. Further, Palantir does not work alone; it is enabled by corporate and academic partners. The institutions that support Palantir are obligated to stand up for migrants and cut ties with ICE collaborators.
UC Berkeley’s electrical engineering and computer sciences, or EECS department, is one of these supporters. Palantir has a $20,000 annual contract with the EECS department through the department’s Corporate Access Program. The contract allows Palantir special recruiting access to computer and data science students on campus, supplying Palantir with a critical talent pipeline.
Palantir planned to hold a recruitment session on campus in September, but when hundreds of students RSVP’d to protest the session on Facebook, it canceled the event. Still, EECS has not canceled its contract with the company.
Palantir’s contract with EECS underscores campus hypocrisy. EECS prides itself on its so-called commitment to ethics and requires an ethics course for all its undergraduate students. In December 2018, the campus signed an Inclusive Intelligence initiative that calls for an approach to data science that is “inclusive of individuals from all backgrounds to benefit the greater good.” The campus consistently props up its support for undocumented students; on Nov. 12, Chancellor Carol Christ sent a campuswide email affirming that “all are welcome here,” regardless of immigration status. By welcoming ICE collaborators to recruit on campus, the “safe and supportive environment” for undocumented students that Christ endorsed in her email is directly undermined. Moreover, by channeling graduates to work for Palantir, EECS is complicit in ICE’s actions.
Universities like this one, with a computer science program that regularly ranks among the best in the world, are the training ground for data and computer scientists. We are uniquely positioned to address the threat that unrestrained technological development poses by showing a real commitment to technology ethics. We have an opportunity to say “never again” and to refuse to welcome corporations that do business with ICE. We have an opportunity to stand on the right side of history; if we don’t, we will look back with regret.