PALANTIR HAS SECRETLY BEEN USING NEW ORLEANS TO TEST ITS PREDICTIVE POLICING TECHNOLOGY
Palantir deployed a predictive policing system in New Orleans that even city council members don’t know about
n May and June 2013, when New Orleans’ murder rate was the sixth-highest in the United States, the Orleans Parish district attorney handed down two landmark racketeering indictments against dozens of men accused of membership in two violent Central City drug trafficking gangs, 3NG and the 110ers. Members of both gangs stood accused of committing 25 murders as well as several attempted killings and armed robberies.
Subsequent investigations by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and local agencies produced further RICO indictments, including that of a 22-year-old man named Evans “Easy” Lewis, a member of a gang called the 39ers who was accused of participating in a drug distribution ring and several murders.
According to Ronal Serpas, the department’s chief at the time, one of the tools used by the New Orleans Police Department to identify members of gangs like 3NG and the 39ers came from the Silicon Valley company Palantir. The company provided software to a secretive NOPD program that traced people’s ties to other gang members, outlined criminal histories, analyzed social media, and predicted the likelihood that individuals would commit violence or become a victim. As part of the discovery process in Lewis’ trial, the government turned over more than 60,000 pages of documents detailing evidence gathered against him from confidential informants, ballistics, and other sources — but they made no mention of the NOPD’s partnership with Palantir, according to a source familiar with the 39ers trial.
The program began in 2012 as a partnership between New Orleans Police and Palantir Technologies, a data-mining firm founded with seed money from the CIA’s venture capital firm. According to interviews and documents obtained by The Verge, the initiative was essentially a predictive policing program, similar to the “heat list” in Chicago that purports to predict which people are likely drivers or victims of violence.
The partnership has been extended three times, with the third extension scheduled to expire on February 21st, 2018. The city of New Orleans and Palantir have not responded to questions about the program’s current status.
Predictive policing technology has proven highly controversial wherever it is implemented, but in New Orleans, the program escaped public notice, partly because Palantir established it as a philanthropic relationship with the city through Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s signature NOLA For Life program. Thanks to its philanthropic status, as well as New Orleans’ “strong mayor” model of government, the agreement never passed through a public procurement process.
In fact, key city council members and attorneys contacted by The Verge had no idea that the city had any sort of relationship with Palantir, nor were they aware that Palantir used its program in New Orleans to market its services to another law enforcement agency for a multimillion-dollar contract.
Even James Carville, the political operative instrumental in bringing about Palantir’s collaboration with NOPD, said that the program was not public knowledge. “No one in New Orleans even knows about this, to my knowledge,” Carville said.
More than half a decade after the partnership with New Orleans began, Palantir has patented at least one crime-forecasting system and has sold similar software to foreign intelligence services for predicting the likelihood of individuals to commit terrorism.
Even within the law enforcement community, there are concerns about the potential civil liberties implications of the sort of individualized prediction Palantir developed in New Orleans, and whether it’s appropriate for the American criminal justice system.
“They’re creating a target list, but we’re not going after Al Qaeda in Syria,” said a former law enforcement official who has observed Palantir’s work first-hand as well as the company’s sales pitches for predictive policing. The former official spoke on condition of anonymity to freely discuss their concerns with data mining and predictive policing. “Palantir is a great example of an absolutely ridiculous amount of money spent on a tech tool that may have some application,” the former official said. “However, it’s not the right tool for local and state law enforcement.”