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Kamala Harris embraced Peter Thiel’s ‘Big Data’ tech in California. How about as president?

As attorney general of California, Kamala Harris embraced the promise of data and technology to improve law enforcement – including data mining systems developed by the secretive Silicon Valley firm Palantir.

In the last several years, however, those data systems have come under increasing scrutiny from privacy and civil liberties activists concerned about a lack of transparency, embedded racial bias and misuse by the Trump administration.

Harris has campaigned for president on a promise to reform the criminal justice system and regularly highlights her efforts to publicize “unprecedented” amounts of data on law enforcement while she was in California.

“As President, she would require police data reporting as a condition to receive federal funds (and) require federal prosecutors to provide data on their charging, plea bargaining, and sentencing decisions,” campaign spokeswoman Kirsten Allen said in a statement. She has also proposed creating a National Police Systems Review Board to review the data and issue policy recommendations.

But Harris has remained silent about whether she would pursue some of the more controversial “Big Data” policing tactics she promoted while attorney general. And her campaign declined to respond to questions about whether she would continue to sign federal contracts with data-mining company Palantir.

The Palo Alto-based company was co-founded by Peter Thiel, a prominent supporter of President Donald Trump, as a counter-terrorism tool for the nation’s military and intelligence agencies.

Politico reported in 2016 that the company had landed more than $1 billion worth of contracts with the Department of Defense, Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security and CIA and other federal agencies since 2009. Earlier this year, the company won a contract with the U.S. Army to build battlefield software that could be worth more than $800 million.

Harris was at the forefront of U.S. law enforcement’s “move toward thinking that these sort of Big Data systems will be helpful,” observed University of the District of Columbia Law Professor Andrew G. Ferguson, who wrote a 2017 book entitled, The Rise of Big Data Policing.

In 2011, Harris signed a memorandum of understanding to provide statewide access to a data system launched by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s office. The attorney general’s press statement described it as “a first-of-its-kind system that provides law enforcement agencies with a clearinghouse of data on the neighborhoods they are sworn to protect, as well as extensive links to community-based resources.”

“Our goal is to collect the data we need to predict, and prevent, the next crime,” Harris said in the statement.

The concept of “predictive policing,” however, has drawn criticism in recent years, as activists raise questions about the algorithms being used to search and find relationships between data points. The furor over data privacy and security breaches in both the private and public sectors have also intensified concerns about law enforcement’s use of data.

Dave Maass, senior investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), highlighted the lack of transparency around most of the data mining techniques the government uses. “Who knows how accurate those are,” he said.

Maass and EFF have also documented how commonly California law enforcement agents have violated rules on accessing the state’s databases, raising concerns about data security.

Some of the jurisdictions that pioneered the tactic are now reversing course.

In April, the Los Angeles Police Department halted the use of one system, called LASER, which was intended to target violent offenders and violence-prone areas. Local activists complained it effectively profiled African Americans and Hispanics, and a city audit found the system lacked proper oversight.

New Orleans also ended a predictive policing effort that used Palantir software in 2018.

Some of the backlash to law enforcement’s use of Big Data also stems from controversies surrounding Palantir itself.

Privacy activists have objected for years to Palantir’s software being used to track domestic crime.

“We are basically using a homeland security apparatus to investigate burglaries at convenience stores,” Oakland-based privacy activist Tracy Rosenberg argued.

But the attacks against the company have ramped up considerably since Trump was elected president, raising Thiel’s profile in Washington and heightening concerns about how the administration is using its surveillance powers.

In particular, Palantir has come under fire over the past two years for its partnership with the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency – or ICE – the agency at the head of Trump’s push to round up and deport undocumented immigrants.

The pro-immigrant advocacy group Mijente has been working to shine a light on technology companies working with ICE, including Palantir and Amazon, that it claims are “fueling deportations.”

Trump wasn’t yet president when Harris announced in 2013 that the state’s Department of Justice was contracting with a Sacramento-based software company, Enterprise Networking Solutions Inc., “in partnership with Palantir Technologies” to build a statewide data system to track criminal offenders. A former senior aide to Harris told McClatchy it was a project the attorney general “was closely involved with.”

According to the contract, obtained by McClatchy via a public records request, ENS provided the state with access to a Palantir data mining system called Gotham.

Rosenberg described Gotham as “a powerful platform that aggregates, consolidates, analyzes and filters both public and not public records.”

“Starting with your name and address or name and drivers license number it’s pretty easy to pull out of there … banking records, property records, relatives, a huge amount of info,” Rosenberg continued. All “without a warrant, without probable cause, without reasonable suspicion.”

A 2014 article describing California’s offender tracking system also noted that “offender data can be displayed via mapping to identify possible gang or high-crime areas.”

The contract extended through the end of 2014. The California Department of Justice, ENS, Palantir and the Harris campaign did not respond to questions about whether it is currently in use in the state, or if not, how long it was.

Jacinta Gonzalez, a senior campaign organizer for Mijente, says that if California is using Palantir technology to manage criminal databases, “that raises a lot of alarms.”

The fear, Gonzalez said, is that, “through systems like Palantir, ICE can get people’s information if they live in California.”

She suggested it could be “a way to go around sanctuary city policies,” which many parts of California have embraced.

The ENS-Department of Justice contract was just one of the many inroads Palantir was making with California law enforcement at the time.

According to records obtained by Wired magazine in 2017, police and sheriffs departments in Harris’ home state account for the vast majority of Palantir’s sales to domestic law enforcement.

And Harris, observed Ferguson, was “the chief law enforcement officer in a state that has embraced Big Data policing. ... She wasn’t saying no to it.”

Harris’ campaign says her work to integrate databases to track offenders in California “allowed for the development of more comprehensive re-entry programs,” part of a broader initiative to reduce recidivism and modernize local police department’s workflow.

The campaign also highlighted her work to make public an unprecedented amount of data on California’s law enforcement agencies, something her office dubbed the Open Justice Initiative. Black Lives Matter activists and others have praised the effort to bring more transparency to policing in the state.

Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff, co-founder and president of the Center for Policing Equity, told McClatchy earlier this year that “California is about to be the national leader on statewide requirements on data collection” on police behavior, “in part because of what she did back then.”

Harris has made clear she will continue to pursue such policies if she is elected to the White House.

But as Ferguson pointed out, the next president will also play a major role in shaping how law enforcement uses data mining technologies and whether to extend federal contracts with companies like Palantir.

“The Trump administration is going to triple down on using all this stuff,” Ferguson said. Harris was open to using those systems in California, he pointed out, so “the question is, would you take that same sort of tack as president?”

Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and writes the Impact2020 newsletter. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.