New Orleans alleged to have secretly used Palantir predictive policing

The New Orleans Police Department is accused of secretly using Palantir's predictive policing technology to predict who would cause a crime or be a victim of it.

New Orleans alleged to have secretly used Palantir predictive policing
Thinkstock

The city of New Orleans and Palantir Technologies are accused of using the city to secretly test Palantir’s predictive policing technology since 2012. Even the City Council allegedly was in the dark about the program that was used to predict who was most likely to commit a crime or be a victim of it.

The Verge published a disturbing report about how the Palantir system managed to fly under the radar for years. It alleges “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.”

But it wasn’t just in 2012; the partnership was reportedly extended three times and was set to expire on Feb. 21, 2018. Neither New Orleans nor Palantir would comment as to the program’s current status.

Secret New Orleans Police Department program

The predictive policing software was part of a secret New Orleans Police Department 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,” the report alleges.

Criminal and civil attorney’s claim the Palantir analysis was never part of any discovery materials turned over for trials. According to The Verge, Jason Williams, the president of the New Orleans City Council and a former defense attorney, said, “I don’t think there’s anyone in the council that would say they were aware that this had even occurred because this was not part and parcel to any of our budget allocations or our oversight.”

According to Fox 8, New Orleans has responded by saying The Verge’s story “is the result of inadequate research by an offbeat publication.” It goes on to state:

According to the Verge article, the use of the policing technology didn't go through a public procurement process because Palantir established its use in New Orleans as pro bono and philanthropic through the Mayor's NOLA For Life program. But, the city says that’s inaccurate and adds they have a cooperative endeavor agreement with Palantir that went through the proper legal process. The city says it’s true the company donated the software to the city. The city also points out that “a simple Google search yields a number of instances where the partnership with Palantir is discussed publicly.”

A “simple” search, huh?

“Our technology enforces analyst accountability, establishes appropriate data access, and handles sensitive information securely so that the City of New Orleans can protect the privacy and civil liberties of its residents,” stated Palantir’s 2015 Philanthropy Engineering report. “In close collaboration with city stakeholders, we integrated sensitive law enforcement data, calls for service, electronic police reports and field interviews, arrest registry records, shooting investigations, and relevant open source data.”

A New Orleans and Palantir murder reduction strategy

The Rise of Big Data Policing: Surveillance, Race, and the Future of Law Enforcement by Andrew Guthrie Ferguson does cite several white papers and a few articles about a New Orleans and Palantir murder reduction strategy. Neither Palantir nor predictive policing was mentioned at all in a 2012 NOLA for Life article about the mayor’s murder reduction plan. That is likely because it wasn’t part of the mayor’s speech (pdf).

Ferguson’s book also quotes Palantir’s 2015 philanthropy report in which Sarah Schirmer, Criminal Justice Policy Advisor, Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice Coordination, said, “Since 2012, Mayor Mitch Landrieu has committed significant resources and effort to reducing murder in New Orleans, and has asked every partner and stakeholder in the city to play a role. Palantir has made it possible for our intelligence analysts to question preconceived ideas about murder victims and suspects. The analysis has strengthened our ability to prevent and intervene in violent conflicts, and connect at-risk individuals to services.”

Yet according to The Verge, “Key city council members and attorneys” had no idea Palantir deployed its predictive policing system. Wouldn’t the city council be considered as 'city stakeholders' with whom Palantir said it closely collaborated?

Apparently not, as The Verge added, “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.”

There are several explosive quotes in The Verge article about Palantir’s predictive policing. For example, Jim Craig, the director of the Louisiana office of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, said it was “almost as if New Orleans were contracting its own version of the NSA to conduct 24/7 surveillance of the lives of its people.”

University of Cincinnati professor Nicholas Corsaro added, “Trying to predict who is going to do what based on last year’s data is just horsesh*t.”

I highly encourage you to read The Verge’s full report.

NEW! Download the Winter 2018 issue of Security Smart