- Controversial data gathering company Palantir Technologies went public Wednesday. Leading up to this move, many reports detailed why the group is so heavily criticized.
- One of the biggest reports came from BuzzFeed News, which obtained documents that show how officers in the Los Angeles Police Department are trained to use Palantir Gotham.
- This tool allows officers to create a database of people who may or may not be suspected of crimes, and then search that database by name, race, gender, tattoos, people they know, and more.
- Within the last few weeks, both Amnesty International and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have also lodged concerns of their own about Palantir, ranging from human rights violations to a lack of transparency with the public.
BuzzFeed News Report
As Palantir Technologies went public on Wednesday, so did numerous reports detailing why the data gathering and analysis company is so controversial.
One of the biggest reports came from BuzzFeed News, which obtained documents revealing how the Los Angeles Police Department used Palantir Gotham, a highly contentious law enforcement tool, to create a sweeping database. According to their report, this includes information like the names of those who have been arrested, convicted, or suspected of a crime, but goes much further.
“Maybe a police officer was told a person knew a suspected gang member. Maybe an officer spoke to a person who lived near a crime “hot spot,” or was in the area when a crime happened. Maybe a police officer simply had a hunch. The context is immaterial,” reporter Caroline Haskins wrote. “Once the LAPD adds a name to Palantir’s database, that person becomes a data point in a massive police surveillance system.”
The LAPD uses this system in effort to quickly search for and find criminals, but it has unsurprisingly faced backlash from those who see Palantir as a privacy overreach. Some believe that, especially as the country is having conversations about shrinking police budgets, tools like this cost taxpayers too much money. Others believe the lack of transparency between the public and police departments about using Planatair and other forms of data surveillance is dangerous.
According to BuzzFeed News, LAPD’s use of Palantir has little to no public oversight or regulation. The program “helped the LAPD construct a vast database that indiscriminately lists the names, addresses, phone numbers, license plates, friendships, romances, jobs of Angelenos — the guilty, innocent, and those in between.”
The LAPD has been using Palantir for ten years, and between 2015 and 2016, paid for it via money it received from the federal government, but it’s unclear if that is always how it has been funded.
Palantir collects information from multiple sources, including the DMV and photos collected at traffic lights and toll booths. The database has one billion pictures of license plates from those locations so that police can see where and when your car was photographed, then click to learn more about you.
On top of this, the report notes that dozens of California police departments, sheriff’s offices, airport police, universities and school districts signed onto data sharing agreements with the LAPD between 2012 and 2017. As a result, these places have had to send daily copies of their police records, licence plate readings, and dispatch information to the LAPD so officers can put that data into Palantir.
A document of user metrics obtained by BuzzFeed shows that as of 2017, there are 5,000 registered LAPD user accounts on Palantir, which is over 40% of the department’s officers. In 2016, LAPD ran more than 60,000 searches in support of more than 10,000 cases.
The outlet also obtained training documents that detail specifically how officers are being instructed to use Palantir. Police can search for people not only by name, but by race, gender, gang membership, tattoos, scars, friends and family. These searches will return a list of names along with associated addresses, emails, vehicles, warrants, mugshots, surveillance pictures, and even personal connections like friends, family members, neighbors and coworkers.
Criticisms of Palantir and Policing
One of the largest criticisms of Palantir comes from those who fear it will exacerbate the racism that already exists in policing.
“The federal government shouldn’t be spending money on unproven surveillance software or crime prediction programs that target Black and Hispanic Americans and don’t actually reduce crime,” Senator Ron Wyden (D-Or.) said.
Many of these concerns here are backed up by sociologist Sarah Brayne, who studied and observed how the LAPD uses data surveillance over the course of seven years. In July, she wrote about Palantir and the LAPD for the Los Angeles Times and said officers had built a “sprawling database of information.”
“In the digital age, data are a form of capital. If only the police and tech companies have access to the data and analytic software, independent evaluation of how this capital is being leveraged in law enforcement is impossible,” Brayne wrote. She also believed that there can easily be racial bias issues in the application of these tools
“Analytic software also can exacerbate inequalities under the veneer of objectivity,” she said. “Surveillance tools such as license plate readers are deployed based on past department crime statistics, which means that “predictive policing” data systems disproportionately point to Black and brown people and neighborhoods for heavier policing and future data gathering.”
Controversies as Palantir Goes Public
Palantir was started by its CEO Alex Karp and a handful of other founders, including Peter Thiel. In addition to being used by the LAPD, it has also been used by the New York Police Department, the CIA, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and most recently, by the Department of Health and Human Services for data processing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
BuzzFeed’s report exposing its use in the LAPD is just the latest piece of criticism it has faced heading into its move to go public. Amnesty International put out a release accusing Palantir of human rights abuses, specifically citing its relationship with ICE.
“Palantir touts its ethical commitments, saying it will never work with regimes that abuse human rights abroad. This is deeply ironic, given the company’s willingness stateside to work directly with ICE, which has used its technology to execute harmful policies that target migrants and asylum-seekers,” wrote Michael Kleinman, the Director of Amnesty International’s Silicon Valley Initiative.
According to Amnesty International, ICE has used Palantir to arrest parents and caregivers of unaccompanied children and to plan mass riads, leading to children being separated from their caregivers. Palantir allows ICE to identify, share information on, investigate, and track migrants and asylum seekers, which aids operations like these.
Palantir also faced criticism earlier this month from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-Ny.) who wrote the Securities and Exchange Commission detailing her concerns about Palantir going public. In a letter, she claimed that the company was not transparent enough with the public.
“Palantir reports several pieces of information about its company – and omits others – that we believe require further disclosure and examination, as they present material risks of which potential investors should be aware and national security concerns of which the public should be aware,” she wrote.
Ocasio-Cortez highlighted several areas of concern, including the fact that Palantir has worked with foreign governments known to engage in corrupt practices and human rights violations, their failure to provide adequate information about one of its board members, and the potential data security implications of its relationship with HHS could have.
“Palantir must provide greater transparency to potential investors about the data protections or lack thereof associated with its government contracts, and further information about the U.S. and non-U.S. government entities for which it is working on data related to the COVID-19 crisis,” she wrote. “This is of paramount importance to investors and the public, as Palantir Chief Operating Office Shyam Sankar recently characterized the company’s work for multiple governments to manage and process data in response to the COVID-19 crisis as the new “driving thrust of the company.”
See what others are saying: (BuzzFeed News) (Business Insider) (Washington Post)
Department of Justice Files Antitrust Suit Against Google Alleging Unlawful Monopoly
- The Department of Justice is filing an antitrust lawsuit against Google, accusing it of illegally maintaining its monopoly by using its hefty ad revenue to engage in exclusionary contracts that block competition.
- An example of this would be Google’s arrangement with Apple to be the default browser on Safari. The Department thinks this agreement makes it impossible for competition to break through.
- Google has defended itself and says that it does make room for competition, but that consumers choose Google of their own volition.
- This is one of the largest antitrust suits against a major tech company in years and could be a long legal battle. Depending on the outcome, there could be major implications for other tech companies outside of Google.
DOJ Files Suit Against Google
The Department of Justice announced Tuesday that it is filing an antitrust suit against Google, launching one of the largest cases of its kind against a tech company in decades.
The suit will hurl multiple allegations against the tech giant, including claims that it maintains its monopoly via unlawful exclusionary and interlocking agreements and contracts that block the growth of competition. The Justice Department is claiming that the company spends billions of dollars in ad revenue to pay major phone and tech companies like Apple to make Google the default search engine on web browsers.
The lawsuit also alleges that Google has arrangements to make sure its search application is preloaded and cannot be deleted on mobile Android devices, which the department says hurts and prevents competition.
An action like this from the Justice Department has been highly anticipated for some time now. In the summer of 2019, Department officials announced a broad review of the practices of big companies, including Google. Their investigation into the company has lasted since and has included probes into several aspects of the Silicon Valley behemoth.
“An antitrust response is necessary to benefit consumers,” Jeffrey A. Rosen, deputy Attorney General said in a briefing. “If the government does not enforce the antitrust laws to enable competition, we could lose the next wave of innovation. If that happens, Americans may never get to see the next Google.”
Google’s Dominance on the Internet
The Attorneys General from eleven states will be joining the suit, and many more may decide to hop on as the legal battle continues. It could take years for this to play out and be resolved. Pending the results, it could also have major implications for other big tech companies.
Google’s dominance across the internet is prominent. According to data from Vox, when it comes to searching, the company takes up 92% of the market, with its biggest competitor, Bing, owning just a small sliver of that space. When it comes to smartphone operating systems, it takes up 85% of the market. For web browsers, it takes up 66%.
The Justice Department is not the only part of the government to recently take aim at Google. In the first week of October, a House subcommittee released a report accusing Google, as well as Facebook, Amazon and Apple, of holding and abusing monopoly power in their respective industries. That report mentioned anti-competitive contracts at Google. The House suggested that there was a “pressing need for legislative action and reform” when it comes to monopolies at major tech companies.
Google has repeatedly denied that it holds an unlawful monopoly. In a Tuesday statement, the company maintained that it allows for healthy competition and condemned the Justice Department’s choice to bring an antitrust suit forward.
“Today’s lawsuit by the Department of Justice is deeply flawed,” the statement said. “People use Google because they choose to, not because they’re forced to, or because they can’t find alternatives.”
“This lawsuit would do nothing to help consumers. To the contrary, it would artificially prop up lower-quality search alternatives, raise phone prices, and make it harder for people to get the search services they want to use.”
When it came to specifics in the suit, Google claimed the Justice Department was relying on “dubious antitrust arguments.” The company compared the agreements it has with companies like Apple to a cereal brand paying a grocery store to stock its boxes at eye level.
When it comes to Apple specifically, Google claims that it is the default in Safari because Apple believes Google to be the best search engine. Google also said their agreement is not exclusive and that Bing and Yahoo are also featured in Safari.
“This isn’t the dial-up 1990s, when changing services was slow and difficult, and often required you to buy and install software with a CD-ROM,” Google argued. “Today, you can easily download your choice of apps or change your default settings in a matter of seconds—faster than you can walk to another aisle in the grocery store.”
“This lawsuit claims that Americans aren’t sophisticated enough to do this. But we know that’s not true.”
While it will take several years for this case to be resolved, many are analyzing what the potential outcomes may be. The Wall Street Journal said that if Google loses, there could be court-ordered changes to its practices, potentially to create openings for new rivals. However, the lawsuit will not immediately specify specific solutions. That step will come further down the road.
If Google wins this, it could throw a wrench in the government’s growing plans to go after big tech companies. Other investigations could get complicated or foiled, and it could mean that this issue might have to move into Congress’ hands.
See what others are saying: (Vox) (Wall Street Journal) (CNN)
Thousands of Amazon Workers Demand Paid Time Off To Vote
- Around 4,000 Amazon tech workers signed a petition Tuesday that calls for eight hours of paid time off to be made available for employees to use up until Election Day for voting-related activities, including voting, registering, and volunteering.
- Amazon, which is the second-largest employer in the U.S., does not currently have a companywide policy that offers its over 1.3 million workers paid time off to vote.
- By contrast, companies like Walmart, Facebook, Apple, Uber, Starbucks, and dozens of others offer some sort of paid allotted time for voting.
- Amazon says employees can request time off to vote, but the number of hours and pay it will provide depends on local laws.
- Critics note that while some states require employees to be excused and paid for a few hours if voting conflicts with work schedules, several battleground states, including Florida and Pennsylvania, do not.
Employees Back Petition
Thousands of Amazon tech workers backed a petition Tuesday urging the company to offer employees paid time off to vote on or before Election Day.
Amazon is the second-largest employer in the country, with over 1.3 million U.S. workers, including Whole Foods employees. However, it does not have a companywide policy in place that offers paid time off to participate in federal elections.
For comparison, Walmart, which is the nation’s largest employer, offers up to three paid hours for its employees to vote. Other companies like Facebook, Apple, Uber, Twitter, and Starbucks also provide allotted time for voting. Some companies, like Patagonia, are even closing their doors completely on Election Day, while stores like Best Buy are reducing hours.
Supporters of such policies point out that for many Americans, voting, especially during a pandemic, can mean hours-long lines and other unexpected delays.
Because of this, on Tuesday, more than 4,000 Amazon tech workers added their support to a petition that was created internally that morning by Amazon Employees for Climate Justice.
That group formed in 2018 to put pressure on the company to commit to reducing fossil fuel emissions, but has expanded its focus to speak out against poor working conditions and other issues.
The petition calls for eight hours of paid time off to be made available for employees to use up until Election Day for voting-related activities, including registering to vote and volunteering.
However, on the other side of the issue, Amazon spokeswoman Jaci Anderson said that the company has given employees information on how to register to vote and request time off.
“In all 47 states with in-person voting, employees that lack adequate time before or after their scheduled workday to vote, can request and be provided excused time off,” she explained. “The number of hours and pay provided to employees varies by state in line with local laws.”
It appears that for now, Amazon doesn’t want to make paid time off for voting a company-wide policy and instead will only comply with local laws.
That’s a big deal because, although many states require employees to be excused and paid for a few hours if voting conflicts with work schedules, several battleground states, including Florida and Pennsylvania, do not.
See what others are saying: (NBC News) (CNN) (The New York Times)
Facebook Bans Holocaust Denial, Reversing Previous Policy
- Facebook announced Monday that it was expanding its hate speech policy to ban content that denies or distorts the Holocaust, a significant reversal from Mark Zuckerberg, who previously said he would leave the content up because it was not “intentional.”
- In a blog post, the company cited the rise of antisemitism and lack of knowledge about the Holocaust among young people as the reasoning behind their decision.
- While many applauded the move, they also argued that Facebook could have done this years ago and that the company was only taking action now because of pressure campaigns like Stop Hate for Profit.
- Others also noted that the company made similar changes this week like banning QAnon and anti-vax ads, and argued Facebook was only reversing these policies to get good press ahead of the election.
Facebook Reverses Holocaust Denial Policy
Facebook will now ban all content that denies or distorts the Holocaust, the company announced Monday, reversing a years-long policy promoted by CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Zuckerberg has long argued that his platform should not be an “arbiter of truth” and intervene in questions of free speech. In 2018, he told Recode that while he found Holocaust denial “deeply offensive,” as a Jewish person himself, he did not think Facebook should regulate it.
“At the end of the day, I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think there are things that different people get wrong,” he said. “I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong.”
Now, Zuckerberg seems to have backtracked entirely, and in a Facebook post on Monday, he said the company would be expanding its hate speech policy to include Holocaust denial.
“We’ve long taken down posts that praise hate crimes or mass murder, including the Holocaust,” he wrote. “But with rising anti-Semitism, we’re expanding our policy to prohibit any content that denies or distorts the Holocaust as well.”
“I’ve struggled with the tension between standing for free expression and the harm caused by minimizing or denying the horror of the Holocaust,” Zuckerberg continued.
“My own thinking has evolved as I’ve seen data showing an increase in anti-Semitic violence, as have our wider policies on hate speech.”
Rise in Antisemitic Violence and Holocaust Ignorance
The claim that antisemitism and anti-Semitic violence is rising is one that has been backed up by numerous recent reports. In May, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported that 2019 saw the highest level of antisemitic incidents since the organization first started tracking in 1979.
This general trend has been supported by other organizations, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which reported that in 2018 that the number of anti-Jewish hate crimes had increased by nearly 40% from 2014.
However, that rise also goes beyond the U.S., which is something Facebook noted in the official blogpost announcing the policy change. In addition to “the well-documented rise in anti-Semitism globally,” the platform also said its decision was supported by “the alarming level of ignorance about the Holocaust, especially among young people.”
The company specifically noted a recent study that found that almost one in four U.S. adults aged 18-39 “said they believed the Holocaust was a myth, that it had been exaggerated or they weren’t sure.”
The study, which went viral last month following its publication, also found generally shocking levels of ignorance that Gen Z and Millenial Americans had about the Holocaust.
Among other things, that study reported that nationally, 63% of respondents did not know 6 million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, and one in every eight said they had not even heard about it before.
Perhaps most relevant to Facebook’s new policy, the study also found that nearly half of people said had seen Holocaust denial or distortion in posts on social media or elsewhere online.
Facebook Accused of Fostering Antisemitism
As is the case with other forms of hate speech and conspiracies, Facebook has long been accused of letting antisemitism flourish by allowing Holocaust denial on the platform.
In July, the ADL published an extensive report on the issue titled “Facebook Has a Holocaust Denial Problem.” Among other things, that report found that both public and private Holocaust denial groups that the platform shared anti-Semitic content that violated Facebook’s existing and long-held community guidelines.
The same month that report was published, the ADL also launched the Stop Hate for Profit campaign, which involved an ad boycott of Facebook from over 1,000 major companies as well as a separate campaign where celebrities froze their Instagram and/or Facebook accounts for one day.
While some said those efforts fell short, a number of people applauded Facebook’s Monday announcement and called the move a win for the campaign.
“Good news—another win for #StopHateForProfit: Facebook should have banned Holocaust denial long ago, but better late than never,” actor Sacha Baron Cohen, who has been a vocal critic of Facebook, tweeted.
Many others also hit on the point that this decision from Facebook was a good step, but it should have been done long ago. In a statement, ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt commended the move, but noted that the ADL had been encouraging the platform to take this step for almost 10 years.
Greenblatt also implied that despite how Facebook may have presented the decision in their remarks, the company was not taking the action out of goodwill for the Jewish community, but rather because of external pressure from Stop Hate for Profit and other campaigns.
“As Facebook finally decides to take a stance against Holocaust denial and distortion, they claim it is because of their work with the Jewish community over the past year,” he said. “We question this claim because if they had wanted to support the Jewish community, this change could have been implemented at any point in the last nine years.”
Questions Over Timing
Other’s also had similar questions about the timing of the decision, noting that in the last two weeks alone, Facebook has made some major reversals, including saying it will temporarily stop all political ads after the election and announcing it will ban QAnon. On Tuesday morning, the company also announced it will start banning anti-vax ads.
As a result, many argued that, despite years of pressure, Facebook is only choosing to crack down on these issues now to get good press and appear as though they are addressing deep-rooted issues ahead of Election Day.
While plenty of people have still said these new changes are better late than never, others claim they were too little too late, pointing out that Facebook had four years to address these issues, but waited until the election was already well underway.
Facebook has been criticized both for its oversized role in allowing the spread of misinformation on the platform in the lead-up to the 2016 election and for not doing enough to address those issues in preparation for the 2020 election.
Also on Monday, a new study published by the German Marshall Fund Digital reported that engagement with misleading websites on Facebook has more than tripled since the 2016 election, despite all the so-called achievements Facebook has touted in this area, and all the millions of dollars it poured into these efforts.