- 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)
Apple Raises Worker Pay as Unions Gain Ground
The company’s vice president of people and retail was caught trying to dissuade employees from unionizing in a leaked video.
Labor Squeezes Apple into Submission
Apple announced Wednesday that its U.S. corporate and retail employees will see a pay increase later this year, with starting wages bumped from $20 per hour to $22, though stores in certain regions may get more depending on market conditions.
Starting salaries are also expected to increase.
“Supporting and retaining the best team members in the world enables us to deliver the best, most innovative, products and services for our customers,” an Apple spokesman said in a statement. “This year as part of our annual performance review process, we’re increasing our overall compensation budget.”
Some workers were told their annual reviews would be moved up three months and that their pay increases would take effect in early July, according to a memo reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Furthermore, they were told the increased compensation budget would be in addition to pay increases and special awards already received within the past year.
Feeling squeezed by low unemployment and high inflation, tech companies like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have changed their compensation structures in recent weeks to pay workers more, and Apple is the latest to bend to market pressure.
Unions Gaining Traction
On Wednesday, The Verge received a leaked video of Apple’s vice president of people and retail, Deirdre O’Brien, explicitly dissuading employees from unionizing.
“I worry about what it would mean to put another organization in the middle of our relationship,” she said. “An organization that does not have a deep understanding of Apple or our business. And most importantly one that I do not believe shares our commitment to you.”
She vocalized more anti-union talking points, like the idea that the company will not be able to make important decisions as quickly with a collective bargaining agreement.
O’Brien has been personally visiting retail stores over the past few weeks in an apparent bid to combat budding union activity.
Apple stores in three locations — New York, Georgia, and Maryland — are currently pushing to unionize, with the latter two set to vote in elections on June 2 and 15, respectively. In response to these efforts, Apple has hired anti-union lawyers, given managers anti-union scripts, and held anti-union captive audience meetings.
In the United States, unionized workers make about 13.2% more than non-unionized workers in the same sector, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
As of Wednesday, Apple’s shares had fallen 21% since the start of the year, but sales grew 34% last year to almost $300 billion.
See what others are saying: (The Wall Street Journal) (CNBC) (The Verge)
Employees at Activision Blizzard’s Raven Software Form First Union at a Major Gaming Company
Organizers say the decision has the potential to upend labor practices in the gaming industry.
Raven Software QA Testers Win Union Bid
A group of 28 workers at Activision Blizzard subsidiary Raven Software voted to form the first-ever union at a major U.S. gaming company.
While the Game Workers Alliance is a small union, organizers in the space say its formation represents a major shift for the gaming industry and will encourage others in the sector to follow suit.
The newly unionized workers are quality insurance (QA) testers working at the Wisconsin-based studio to develop “Call of Duty.” QA testers work to sort out any glitches in games, and the jobs are notoriously known for extreme crunch periods where staffers work long stretches of hours before a game’s release.
During crunch periods, employees are regularly given 12- to 14-hour shifts with just a few days off each month in order to meet release deadlines.
Many QA testers have said they are treated as second-class to others in the industry. They are paid much lower — often minimum wage or close to it — work on contract cycles and, as a result, feel disposable.
That particular sentiment was underscored for workers at Raven Software in December when the company ended the contracts of about a dozen QA testers. The decision prompted the remaining QA testers to hold a walkout and, shortly after that, they began organizing to form a union, which they dubbed the Game Workers Alliance.
Activision’s Battle Against Unionization Effort
Activision did not support the push for unionization and actively fought against it. The company refused to voluntarily recognize the union, and just days after the group filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board, it moved QA testers to different departments across its properties.
Activision also announced it would convert over 1,000 temporary QA workers to full-time employees, give them a pay raise to $20 an hour, and provide more benefits. However, management said the move would not apply to the unionizing workers because, under federal law, they could not try to encourage workers from voting against unionization by offering pay hikes or benefits. Union leaders repudiated that argument.
Additionally, Activision fought against the union petition, arguing that any union would need to include all of the studio’s employees, but the Labor Board rejected the claim and let the effort proceed.
According to multiple reports, Activision management continued to push against the union in the weeks leading up to the vote. Some Raven employees told The Washington Post company leaders had suggested at a town hall meeting that unionization could hurt game development and impact promotions and benefits. The following day, the managers allegedly sent an email urging workers to “vote no.”
On Monday, Labor Board prosecutors announced they had determined that Activision illegally threatened workers and enforced a social media policy that violated bargaining rights. Activision denied the new allegations.
The two parties will have until the end of the month to file an objection, and if none are filed, the union becomes official. It is currently unclear how Activision and Raven will respond, but they have signaled that they might not make the transition period easy for the union.
According to internal documents seen by Bloomberg, the company has repeatedly mentioned that it can take a while for a union to negotiate its first contract.
In a statement following the vote, an Activision spokesperson told The Post that the company respects the right of its employees to vote for or against a union, but added: “We believe that an important decision that will impact the entire Raven Software studio of roughly 350 people should not be made by 19 of Raven employees. We’re committed to doing what’s best for the studio and our employees.”
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (The Washington Post) (Bloomberg)
Uber Forks Over $19 Million in Fine for Misleading Australian Riders
The penalty is just the latest in a string of lawsuits going back years.
Uber Gets Fined
Uber has agreed to pay a $19 million fine after being sued by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission for making false or misleading statements in its app.
The first offense stems from a company policy that allows users to cancel their ride at no cost up to five minutes after the driver has accepted the trip. Despite the terms, between at least December 2017 and September 2021, over two million Australians who wanted to cancel their ride were nevertheless warned that they may be charged a small fee for doing so.
Uber said in a statement that almost all of those users decided to cancel their trips despite the warnings.
The cancellation message has since been changed to: “You won’t be charged a cancellation fee.”
The second offense, occurring between June 2018 and August 2020, involved the company showing customers in Sydney inflated estimates of taxi fares on the app.
The commission said that Uber did not ensure the algorithm used to calculate the prices was accurate, leading to actual fares almost always being higher than estimated ones.
The taxi fare feature was removed in August 2020.
A Troubled Legal History
Uber has been sued for misleading its users or unfairly charging customers in the past.
In 2016, the company paid California-based prosecutors up to $25 million for misleading riders about the safety of its service.
An investigation at the time found that at least 25 of Uber’s approved drivers had serious criminal convictions including identity theft, burglary, child sex offenses and even one murder charge, despite background checks.
In 2017, the company also settled a lawsuit by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for $20 million after it misled drivers about how much money they could earn.
In November 2021, the Justice Department sued the company for allegedly charging disabled customers a wait-time fee even though they needed more time to get in the car, then refused to refund them.
Later the same month, a class-action lawsuit in New York alleged that Uber charged riders a final price higher than the upfront price listed when they ordered the ride.