Palantir Provides the Engine for Donald Trump’s Deportation Machine

Documents reveal the role played by Palantir in creating the systems used by ICE to target immigrants for deportation.

A security contractor frisks a female immigration detainee from Honduras ahead of a deportation flight to San Pedro Sula, Honduras on February 28, 2013 in Mesa, Arizona. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), operates 4-5 flights per week from Mesa to Central America, deporting hundreds of undocumented immigrants detained in western states of the U.S. With the possibility of federal budget sequestration, ICE released 303 immigration detainees in the last week from detention centers throughout Arizona. More than 2,000 immigration detainees remain in ICE custody in the state. Most detainees typically remain in custody for several weeks before they are deported to their home country, while others remain for longer periods while their immigration cases work through the courts. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images) Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

Immigration and Customs Enforcement is deploying a new intelligence system called Investigative Case Management (ICM), created by Palantir Technologies, that will assist in President Donald Trump’s efforts to deport millions of immigrants from the United States.

In 2014, ICE awarded Palantir, the $20 billion data-mining firm founded by billionaire Trump advisor Peter Thiel, a $41 million contract to build and maintain ICM, according to government funding records. The system is scheduled to arrive at “final operating capacity” by September of this year. The documents identify Palantir’s ICM as “mission critical” to ICE, meaning that the agency will not be able to properly function without the program.

ICM funding documents analyzed by The Intercept make clear that the system is far from a passive administrator of ICE’s case flow. ICM allows ICE agents to access a vast “ecosystem” of data to facilitate immigration officials in both discovering targets and then creating and administering cases against them. The system provides its users access to intelligence platforms maintained by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and an array of other federal and private law enforcement entities. It can provide ICE agents access to information on a subject’s schooling, family relationships, employment information, phone records, immigration history, foreign exchange program status, personal connections, biometric traits, criminal records, and home and work addresses.

“What we have here is a growing network of interconnected databases that together are drawing in more and more information,” said Jay Stanley, a privacy expert at the American Civil Liberties Union. “If President Trump’s rhetoric on mass deportations is going to be turned into reality, then we’re going to see these tools turned in that direction, and these documents show that there are very powerful and intrusive tools that can be used toward that end.”

Although ICM appears to have been originally conceived for use by ICE’s office of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the system appears to be widely available to agents within ICE. Officers of ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Office (ERO) — the U.S. government’s primary deportation force — access the system to gather information for both criminal and civil cases against immigrants, according to a June 2016 disclosure by the Department of Homeland Security, although ERO will use a separate system to manage its civil cases. “HSI and ERO personnel use the information in ICM to document and inform their criminal investigative activities and to support the criminal prosecutions arising from those investigations,” states the DHS filing. “ERO also uses ICM data to inform its civil cases.”

ICE’s Office of the Principal Legal Advisor also uses ICM to represent the office in “exclusion, deportation, and removal proceedings,” among other matters, according to the DHS disclosure.

The DHS disclosure states that Homeland Security Investigations is ICM’s primary user. Although mainly tasked with investigating serious cross-border crimes like drug smuggling, human trafficking, and child pornography, HSI had also been behind some of the most controversial workplace immigration raids of the Obama administration, which immigrant advocates fear could expand massively under President Trump. HSI provided support to the Enforcement and Removal Office during last month’s high-profile enforcement surge, and just last week it was reported that HSI agents spearheaded a controversial sweep of several Asian restaurants in Mississippi that led to the agency apprehending more than 50 immigrants.

The ICM documents offer a detailed reminder of the Obama-era push to upgrade and expand the federal government’s tools to track and deport immigrants. Obama not only presided over an unprecedented number of deportations; his administration also oversaw the pronounced expansion of intelligence systems aimed at the country’s immigrants. Now the sprawling immigrant surveillance apparatus that Obama enhanced is squarely in the hands of Donald Trump to assist in carrying out his promise to rapidly deport millions of immigrants.

A slide from a 2014 Immigration and Customs Enforcement document outlining capabilities required by the agency’s proposed Investigative Case Management system.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement

The ICM documents also underscore the prominent role Palantir will likely play in assisting ICE in this mission.

Notably, two of the primary intelligence systems that ICM relies upon have also been also built or supported by Peter Thiel’s firm, according to the funding documents. One of these is ICE’s FALCON system, a database and analytical platform built by Palantir that HSI agents can use to track immigrants and crunch data on forms of cross-border criminal activity. According to the documents, ICM also provides its users access to U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s “Analytical Framework for Intelligence,” or AFI, a vast yet little-understood data system that Palantir played a largely secret-role in supporting. Some privacy advocates believe that AFI could be used to fuel Trump’s “extreme vetting” of those seeking to enter the country.

A slide from a 2014 ICE funding document outlining required data flows for the agency’s modernized Investigative Case Management system.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement

“When Trump uses the term ‘extreme vetting’, AFI is the black-box system of profiling algorithms that he’s talking about,” Edward Hasbrouck of the Identity Project, a civil liberties initiative, told me last year. “This is what extreme vetting means.”

ICM also provides its users with access to an internal system called the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), which “includes biographic and immigration status data related to individuals who are temporarily admitted to the United States as students or exchange visitors,” according to the DHS. Agents using ICM can also query ACRIMe, an extensive database operated by ERO that compiles data on immigrants in the United States. In addition, the funding documents state that ICM provides agents — through AFI — access to data gathered under the controversial National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, or NSEERS, the now-defunct Bush-era system requiring visa-holders from two-dozen predominately Muslim countries and North Korea to register with the federal government.

One funding document states that ICM provides agents with the ability to simultaneously search information on a given person across a diverse range of government databases, permitting, for an example, an address search to query “multiple documents throughout the system, such as the person subject record, financial data (interface), CBP crossing data (interface), and other HSI and CBP subject record types. The user shall be able to conduct a consolidated address search that will match on all addresses regardless of the record type.”

Although ICE’s enforcement focuses overwhelmingly on immigrants, the ICM funding documents make clear the intelligence tool can also be aimed at U.S. citizens. “Citizenship can be established a variety of ways to include biographical and biometric system checks,” one document states. “U.S. Citizens are still subject to criminal prosecution and thus are a part of ICM.”

The scope of ICM’s use appears to have expanded during the system’s development. The hundreds of pages of funding documents from 2014 make no mention whatsoever of ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Office (ERO). On the contrary, the 2014 records state that ICM was launched as primarily an HSI initiative and meant for use by HSI agents. Yet by June of last year, this appears to have changed: The recent DHS privacy disclosure repeatedly states that ERO uses ICM to support aspects of its mission.

This is not the only case in which it has remained unclear what kind of limits ICE has on the sorts of missions for which its intelligence systems can be used.

A spokesperson for Palantir declined to provide comment for this story. ICE did not respond to a list of questions, including whether FALCON — ICE’s advanced intelligence and analytics system for Homeland Security Investigations — is also made available to ERO agents.

In February, ICE responded to a Freedom of Information Act Request asking for internal rules or restrictions on FALCON’s use by stating that no such documents existed, although ICE’s response also indicated the agency may have conducted an incomplete search for the records. The 2014 funding records indicate that ERO’s use of ICM — which provides its users access to Palantir’s FALCON — might also grant the deportation force access to FALCON.

Data sharing between federal agencies is often not governed by concrete legal regulations, according to Anil Kalhan, a professor at Drexel University’s Thomas R. Kline School of Law.

“Legislation after 9/11 authorized and encouraged information sharing within the executive branch,” Kalhan told the Intercept in December. “There is general authorization, and the scope and limits and constraints upon that authorization have not really been spelled out.”

The ICM documents appear to contain information about FALCON that is not otherwise publicly available. One funding document states that FALCON — and thus ICM — can link to a controversial law enforcement database called Black Asphalt, which is maintained by a private firm called Desert Snow and provides information to help police engage in civil and criminal asset forfeiture. Iowa and Kansas have prohibited the use of Black Asphalt by law enforcement agencies because of concerns that it “might not be a legal law enforcement tool,” according to the Washington Post. The funding documents also state that FALCON includes access to services provided by Cellebrite, an Israeli company that specializes in software used to breach cellphones.

With its full deployment arriving just in time for the Trump transition, ICM appears well positioned to respond to a new set of demands being placed on ICE by a president elected on promises of deporting immigrants en masse. The agency stipulated that Palantir must build a tool that can handle “no less than 10,000 users accessing the system at the same time” to search tens of millions of subject records.

A slide from a 2014 ICE funding document illustrating a day in the life of a Homeland Security Investigations special agent.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement

On May 8, 2014, in a meeting with representatives of firms vying to win the ICM contract, ICE screened a slide presentation to show just how ICM’s many users will be able to utilize the ICM system. The slides lay out a hypothetical scenario in which an ICE agent uses ICM to both interrogate a suspect at the border and then to shepherd the suspect’s case through court proceedings.

The first slide tells of a man named Jim Doe who attempted to enter the country by car but was stopped by CBP at the border and was discovered to be carrying contraband. So CBP calls in a square-jawed ICE HSI investigator, who immediately opens ICM and queries its data. This produces records on Doe’s vehicle, business dealings, prior arrests, and records detailing his prior crossings of the border.

Armed with this intelligence, the HSI agent then interrogates Doe and learns that he had brought the contraband across the border at the behest of a man Doe knows only by the nickname “Caliber,” who also has detailed discoverable information in ICM, which is able to reveal his true name of Calvin Clark by making connections based on a tattoo of Clark’s that is included in the system’s data.

Once the ICE agent has completed his ICM-backed investigation, he then uses ICM to create a case file. A subsequent chart shows the apparent final stage of ICM’s cradle-to-grave services represented in a graphic of a person clutching to prison bars with a caption reading: “justice is served.”

But the following slide points out that a conviction is not in fact the final step in ICM’s intelligence life cycle.

“Even once the case is closed,” the document states of the ICM record, “it is available for other agents to discover and link to future investigations, continuing the investigative cycle.”

Documents published with this article:

Top photo: A security contractor frisks a female immigration detainee from Honduras ahead of a deportation flight to San Pedro Sula, Honduras on February 28, 2013 in Mesa, Arizona.

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