Op-Ed: The University of Cambridge should cut all ties with Palantir

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Since October 27th 2019, a growing number of students have been criticising the University of Cambridge, particularly the Department of Computer Science and Technology, for their close ties with the American software company Palantir. Palantir’s technology is documented to enable human rights violations, specifically targeting migrants and racialised people.

Repeated requests from students for the department to cut its ties with Palantir have been met with little to no serious consideration or response. It sets an unacceptable precedent when students’ legitimate concerns over the department’s corporate engagements are side-lined in favour of the company.

On 28th October 2019, Palantir led what was effectively a recruitment talk at the department. Then, on 14th November, Palantir were advertising and recruiting at the department’s annual recruitment fair. Palantir also awards student prizes for the best dissertation and appears as a paying member of the Supporters’ Club at the department. In other words, in exchange for money, the department provides Palantir with a platform to recruit talented students, without offering the students a fair picture of the ethics of the company.

Meanwhile, Palantir profits from a multi-million-dollar contract with the US Immigration Customs Enforcement agency (ICE), putting their technology at the service of mass scale deportations and other brutal anti-immigrant policies. In August 2019, almost 700 immigrant workers were arrested in Mississippi, USA, during the largest raid operation launched by ICE in over a decade. It was made possible by Palantir’s FALCON app, which allows ICE to efficiently collect, store, and analyse data that they then use to identify and target undocumented migrants.

Many of the migrants from the Mississippi raids have been detained for several weeks in inhumane ICE detention centres, separated from their families, and are now facing deportation. These raids and the subsequent treatment of the migrants by ICE are racist, violent and a violation of basic human rights. Despite this, Palantir has chosen to renew its contract with ICE.

It doesn’t stop there. All over the world, Palantir sells intrusive surveillance technology to police, defence and security organisations who use it to target vulnerable populations. This includes technologies for data-driven predictive policing, which are known to reinforce discriminatory biases against poor and racialised people. These technologies are already in use in the US, while the police in Denmark are in the process of implementing them.

We want to make the University aware of the human rights violations they are complicit in when they continuously support Palantir by giving them access to the resources they need most: talented students. Hence, we have formed NoTechForTyrants, and, in collaboration with NoTechForICE, we work to push Palantir to drop their contract with ICE.

When we first informed the Department of Computer Science and Technology about the violence Palantir is complicit in, and asked them to cancel the 28th October talk, the department refused, referring to the company’s freedom of speech. This response seems off the mark in a setting where companies literally buy their way in to gain access to the students. This is not about freedom of speech. It is about money.

NoTechForTyrants – as well as Computer Science students – then repeatedly asked the department to retract their invitation for Palantir to attend the recruitment fair on 14th November. To date, the department has not replied to any request for clarification either from us or from their own students.

In light of the Department’s continued silence on the matter, we attended the department’s recruitment fair to give students a fair chance of knowing what their skills would be used for by a company like Palantir. At the fair, several students and even faculty members expressed sympathy to our cause and shared concerns about both Palantir and the department’s corporate engagements.

In recent years, Cambridge has appeared increasingly committed to developing a more inclusive environment at the University, particularly for BME students and migrants, with students successfully campaigning for bursaries for refugee scholars and positions for scholars in exile. Meanwhile, the University is content to receive funding from and legitimises a violence-enabling company whose technology is specifically used to target migrant and racialised populations.

We call for the University of Cambridge to immediately stop supporting Palantir, unless Palantir takes significant measures to ensure that its technology will not be used for purposes that infringe on human rights. This means cutting all ties the University or any of its affiliated institutions might have with Palantir. Crucially, it means stopping sending students their way in exchange for money.

We also call for our fellow students to recognise that we, as students from an elite university, have the power to change things, simply by being mindful of how our skills will be used. Academics and students from all over the world, including over 70 Cambridge students, have already pledged not to put their abilities at the service of immoral companies such as Palantir, until they drop the contract with ICE. 117 Cambridge academics and students signed our open letter calling for the department to drop Palantir. 

You can sign the pledge here. You are also welcome to join us in our actions on campus, or help us to research and organise: just email us at info@notechfortyrants.org.

Together, let’s put an end to our University’s ties with violence-enabling companies like Palantir.

Originally posted in Varsity