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San Diego Sheriff logo by Tristan Loper
San Diego Sheriff / Photo by Tristan Loper

Since 2016, law enforcement agencies in San Diego have spent millions on a data-analytics company known for its predictive policing platform, with ties to immigration and intelligence authorities — all while bypassing open discussion.

The company’s software has been identified as a top priority for funding by a working group consisting of police and fire representatives from across the county that meets annually in secret. But before the closed-door recommendations can become purchase orders, elected officials need to sign off.

For years, the San Diego City Council has been approving the grant applications, effectively buying a wide range of tools under the guise of terrorism preparedness, without any meaningful vetting. The funds come from the federal government and trickle through the state.

The public safety personnel who manage the program and divvy up the anti-terrorism funds locally have exempted themselves from California’s major transparency laws. On the rare occasion in which elected officials have raised questions, they’ve been offered private briefings. The group’s charter, originally written in 2008, explicitly states that it doesn’t need to hold open meetings, and that language is now the subject of a lawsuit filed by the newspaper La Prensa.

In response to a Voice of San Diego records request, however, the county has begun releasing documents in its possession that are still labeled as “exempt from public disclosure.” The Urban Area Security Initiative grant program is managed by the city of San Diego’s Office of Homeland Security but the working groups that make the recommendations are subcommittees of the regional San Diego Unified Disaster Council.

The documents released so far represent a wish list of tactical gear and communications systems for fiscal years ’15, ’16, ’17 and ’18 with a significant chunk of the money set aside for the salaries of public safety personnel and training sessions. Earlier this month, VOSD also obtained a copy of the fiscal year ’21 wish list.

Though not every item was expected to receive funding, the recommendations for all five of those years totaled more than $96 million. It includes purchases for tactical robots, a mobile high-definition trailer that can act as a lookout during protests and helicopters equipped with thermal-imagining cameras that detect body heat in the dark.

Another $1.9 million was earmarked over that five-year period for Palantir. The company got off the ground after 9/11 with seed money from the CIA’s venture capital firm and helps police break down the silos of information and mine various streams of data, looking for connections that the human eye might miss. In some cities, it’s been used to make predictions about who might be a victim or a perpetrator of violent crime.

When asked, local police have said little about how the company’s software — run out the San Diego Law Enforcement Coordination Center, a federally designated “fusion center” that provides regional intelligence — is used. The city of San Diego, for instance, has declined to release communications mentioning Palantir or its flagship software, Gotham, arguing, among other things, that the public is better off not knowing.

National press reports, however, give a sense of how Palantir’s software might be a valuable investigative tool while also pointing to its potential for abuse.

In New Orleans, analysts scraped information from social media as well as criminal and gang databases and field interviews by officers, then used the list to target individuals for the city’s gunfire-reduction program. Both the city and the company claimed that their data-driven interventions were behind a temporary drop-off in violent crime but outside researchers were unable to confirm that.

In Mississippi, Palantir’s tools were used alongside one of the largest workplace raids in U.S. history, leading to the arrest and deportation of hundreds of people, separating families.

The Pentagon was among the company’s earliest clients, helping soldiers and contractors conduct risk-assessments in occupied parts of the world to determine who is and isn’t a terrorist worthy of being blown up by drone.

The company’s chief executive sees Palantir as a defender of Western civilization and, though a self-described progressive, has criticized Silicon Valley for what he perceives as its lack of patriotism. The company has received no-bid contracts from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and is reportedly helping the federal government track the distribution of coronavirus vaccines and identify high-priority populations.

Palantir is also turning up in the private sector. A security team within JPMorgan Chase ran special ops to look for insider threats by monitoring the bank’s employees. Others use the software to expedite the development of new drugs or make race cars faster. The company went public last year.

Along the way, Palantir has been propped up with taxpayer dollars. Yet the public is rarely afforded an opportunity to even debate the technology’s legal and social implications while it quietly integrates into the background of everyday life.

The original Palantir subscription in San Diego was procured by the Sheriff’s Department in 2013 for the San Diego Law Enforcement Coordination Center. In Los Angeles, the police department has relied on Palantir for data analysis — creating lists of “chronic offenders” most likely to commit violent crimes — after it was gifted to the city through a local charity that has also received Palantir donations.

Despite its relatively small workforce and list of clients, the company has an outsized reputation and large reach, because some of the organizations it partners with partner in turn with other agencies.

Motherboard reported in 2019 that about 300 cities in Northern California, home to almost 8 million people, had access to Palantir software through a partnership with Northern California Regional Intelligence Center, a “fusion center” based in San Francisco and similar to the one in San Diego. Upon request, agents would gather and produce information about people, including travel history, vehicle plates and possible associates. And per the arrangement with the company, none of the local departments had to tell anyone about it, because they didn’t technically own the license.

The executive director of the San Diego Law Enforcement Coordination Center did not return an interview request to better understand how police use Palantir locally and why the annual payments to Palantir have dropped from $450,000 in past grant cycles to $100,000 in the current grant cycle. Some agencies have stopped using the software or scaled back their subscriptions, based on mixed reviews of its usefulness.

In response to questions from VOSD, however, the Sheriff’s Department and San Diego Law Enforcement Coordination Center issued a statement noting that Palantir is grant funded and emphasizing that its analysis comes from already-existing sources of information.

“It helps organize data to have a better understanding of the information being reviewed for criminal investigations,” the agencies wrote. “The data gleaned from Palantir is the same information that all law enforcement agencies have access to through legal and authorized computer systems.”

The software purchase was placed on a San Diego County Board of Supervisors’ agenda in 2013 and approved without any discussion. An agreement with the company notes: “The platform shall enable the SD-LECC to perform advanced analytics, such as link, pattern, statistical, behavioral, and geospatial analysis.” A section laying out some of the sources of internal and external data is redacted.

When asked specifically about Palantir’s ability to analyze behavior, the agencies said they had nothing more to add.

The fact San Diego law enforcement has access to the software at all is raising alarm bells in criminal justice circles. Independent research suggests that predictive policing models in general are biased against people of color because the algorithms rely on crime data that’s biased to begin with.

“All of those tools inevitably end up being used — no matter what the intention, or the high-level ideas of keeping communities safe — they all end up being used disproportionately on Black and Brown people,” said Khalid Alexander, founder and president of Pillars of the Community, a civil rights group in southeastern San Diego.

The more immediate concern is that law enforcement groups are acquiring technologies while sidestepping the governing bodies set up to serve as a check on police authority. Software like Palantir’s casts a digital dragnet, with real-world implications, even if it exists out of sight.

“The fact they’re using these things and being as secretive as possible is going to reinforce the division between those who feel they’re targeted and systemically abused, and the police department who feels they can get away with anything,” Alexander said.

San Diego City Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe has signaled support for a more open conversation about how anti-terrorism grants are being spent. Her office confirmed that she intends to hold a hearing at the Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee this month.

Palantir did not comment for this story. Generally, the company contends that it takes privacy seriously and doesn’t conduct its own surveillance. Rather, it brings disparate sources of information together on a single workstation. Palantir may not be a data company, but to take full advantage of its services, the same public agencies that purchase the software are incentivized to amass larger and larger pools of data, both public and private — everything from foreclosure records to pizza deliveries.

The way Alexander sees it, tech companies and police departments have found ways to talk about civil liberties without substantively changing the work they do and the tools they develop and buy. The upcoming presentation at the city’s public safety committee aside, there hasn’t been much response to stories in recent weeks showing that elected officials have been signing a blank check for tactical equipment and surveillance gear.

Their silence, Alexander said, begs the question: “Who’s really in charge?”

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