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Germany raises red flags over Palantir’s Big Data Dragnet

Germany raises red flags over Palantir’s Big Data Dragnet

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Britta Eder’s list of telephone contacts is full of people whom the German state considers criminals. As a criminal defense lawyer in Hamburg, her clients include anti-fascists, opponents of nuclear power and members of the banned militant Kurdish nationalist organization PKK.

For her customers, she is used to being careful on the phone. “When I’m on the phone, I always think maybe I’m not alone,” she says. That confidence even extends to phone calls to her mother.

But when Hamburg passed a new law in 2019 that allowed police to use data analysis software developed by CIA-backed firm Palantir, she feared she could be drawn further into the big data-mining network. A feature of Palantir’s Gotham platform allows police to map networks of phone contacts, effectively monitoring individuals like Eder – who are linked to suspected criminals but are not themselves criminals.

“I thought this is the next step in the police force trying to get more opportunities to track people without concrete evidence linking them to a crime,” says Eder. So she decided to become one of 11 plaintiffs trying to have the Hamburg law void. They did it yesterday.

A German top court has ruled the Hamburg law unconstitutional, issuing for the first time strict guidelines on how automated data analysis tools like Palantir’s can be used by police and warning against the inclusion of data from bystanders such as witnesses or lawyers like Eder. According to the ruling, the Hamburg law and a similar law in Hesse “allow the police to create comprehensive profiles of people, groups and districts with just one click” without distinguishing between suspected criminals and people close to them.

The decision didn’t ban Palantir’s Gotham tool, but it did limit how police can use it. “Eder’s risk of being flagged or having her data processed by Palantir is now drastically reduced,” says Bijan Moini, head of the legal department of the Berlin Society for Civil Rights (GFF), which brought the case to court.

Although Palantir was not the target of the ruling, the decision dealt a blow to the 19-year-old company’s policing ambitions in Europe’s largest market. Co-founded by billionaire Peter Thiel, who remains chairman, Palantir helps police clients connect disparate databases and pull massive amounts of personal data into one accessible information source. But the German court’s guidance may influence similar decisions in the rest of the European Union, says Sebastian Golla, an assistant professor of criminology at Ruhr-Universität Bochum, who authored the lawsuit against Hamburg’s palantir law. “I think that will have a bigger impact than just in Germany.”

The head of the Hessian State Criminal Police Office spoke out in favor of the use of Palantir in the court proceedings with the success of the software known popularly as “Hessendata”. In December, police were able to locate a suspect involved in the attempted coup in Germany (when a far-right group was arrested for conspiring to violently overthrow the government) because Hessendata was able to link a wiretapped phone number to a number once transmitted in the connection with a non-criminal traffic accident.

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