Palantir buildingFASTILY

Students are campaigning for Cambridge University to sever its links with Palantir, a technology company that supplies software for controversial US government immigration enforcement programmes.

On Monday, students from the #NoTechForTyrants campaign protested a talk, entitled ‘Privacy and Civil Liberties (PCL) & Machine Learning’, held by senior Palantir employees at the Department of Computer Science and Technology. Palantir directs money towards the Department through its sponsorship of student prizes and as a member of the Supporters’ Club, for which it pays an annual fee.

Both staff and students have condemned the decision to allow the university to be used by Palantir as a “recruitment ground”. A computer science lecturer commented that the decision to allow the talk was “disgraceful” and “shames the computer science department”.

An open letter published by the campaign demanding cancellation of the talk and any future events at Cambridge University has so far gathered over 90 signatures.

Responding to the complaints, a University spokesperson commented, “The tech talk was widely advertised in advance. Those attending were given the opportunity to raise any concerns and debate any issues during the talk itself.

Criticism of Palantir stems from its collaboration with the US government on immigration enforcement programmes, which the campaign argues are a “grotesque violation of human rights”. US Immigration Customs Enforcement uses Palentir’s software packages to investigate families and sponsors of children crossing the border and to conduct workplace raids. Workplace raids have reportedly increased by 650% during the Trump administration.

The campaign argues that “thousands have been arrested, just for being undocumented, children have been left without parents over night, and people who have lived in America for sometimes decades are being berated, detained, and deported.”

Campaigners’ demands for the immediate cancellation of the talk at Cambridge University had been rebuffed by the Department, which stated it was “obliged to allow freedom of speech”. In response, students handed leaflets to attendees headed ‘Cancel their platform: Cambridge is complicit’. They argued that Cambridge University, which counts refugees and migrants among its student body, should not enable the “marginalisation of people who fled or are fleeing conflict, persecution and hunger.”

At the event, when questioned about the company’s role in raids, detentions and deportations, the UK Government lead for Palantir Duncan Robertson replied, ““There’s been a lot of press coverage about that. We work within the legal framework of the state we work within. I believe it’s important that our software is being used in legal, compliant, and safe ways.”

Pressed on what he meant by safe, Robertson qualified “safety of the law”.


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Next week, following the example of the US-based NoTechForICE campaign in which staff and students from 30 universities urged their institutions to boycott Palantir, #NoTechForTyrants is launching a petition to encourage students to pledge not to work for Palantir. They claim they are joined by Edinburgh University, St Andrews and Oxford University and will be reaching out to other universities.

Palantir’s activities are attracting controversy more widely. A report in The Times this week highlighted the company’s links to BP, which has also been the target of Cambridge student protests. The oil corporation has formed an alliance with Palantir to help it increase oil extraction.

BP’s incoming chief executive Bernard Looney, according to The Times, spoke of BP’s “digital transformation”, stating that Palantir was “right at the heart of that work”. The partnership with Palantir, they estimate, has helped BP produced an extra 20,000 barrels in the North Sea, which amounts to a 10% increase.