UK awards border contract to firm criticised over role in US deportations

Exclusive: tech firm Palantir has come under fire for links to Trump’s drive to eject migrants

The government has awarded oversight of the UK’s post-Brexit border and customs data to Palantir, an American tech firm notorious for assisting the Trump administration’s drive to deport migrants from the US.

Palantir, whose co-founder Peter Thiel has been a vocal supporter of Trump, was formally awarded a contract last week to manage the data analytics and architecture of the UK’s new “border flow tool”, which will collate data on the transit of goods and customs from 31 December, according to a Cabinet Office document seen by the Guardian.

The “reasonable worst-case scenario” document, drawn up by a team of civil servants tasked with overseeing the transition to post-Brexit border arrangements, warns of queues of 7,000 lorries and two-day delays to enter the European Union.

The document describes how a Cabinet Office working group, the border and protocol delivery group, is creating a “border impact centre” in Whitehall to assess issues with customs and the movement of goods after 31 December.

“Services are being procured from Palantir, a leader in data analytics, to provide the data infrastructure and analytics capabilities to support the development of a border flow tool,” the document states.

Founded in 2004 by Thiel and the technologist Alex Karp, Palantir has developed a multibillion-dollar business, in large part based on supplying data analytics software to branches of the US government, such as the Central Intelligence Agency and Los Angeles police department.

Thiel is a libertarian who publicly endorsed Trump’s plan to “rebuild” the US in a speech at the Republican national convention in 2016. “Fake culture wars only distract us from our economic decline, and nobody in this race is being honest about it except Donald Trump,” he said at the time.

According to the Wall Street Journal, however, Thiel has withheld donations from Trump’s 2020 campaign, expressing doubts he can win in the face of the economic damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Palantir has attracted sustained controversy over its ongoing partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice), the US government department charged with deporting undocumented immigrants from America.

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Documents leaked to the Intercept describe Palantir’s Investigative Case Management software as “mission critical” to Ice’s deportation efforts. The firm was awarded a $41m (£31.5m) contract to develop the software in 2014.

Palantir has previously sought to downplay its involvement in Ice operations. In a statement to the New York Times in 2018 it implied that its contract with Ice was in support of a separate division to that tasked with investigating migrants.

Following internal criticism from staff over its collaboration with Ice’s drive to increase deportations under the Trump administration, and high-profile withdrawals from government by other Silicon Valley firms, Karp responded that Palantir was proud of its work, while Thiel accused Google of “treasonous” behaviour for withdrawing from its own government contract, according to the Washington Post.

Earlier this year the Guardian reported on leaked documents revealing that Downing Street had recruited Palantir to compile and analyse a vast array of disparate datasets from UK public authorities, including some with confidential patient data, to help inform the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Palantir initially agreed to carry out the work for a nominal fee of £1. The contract was subsequently renewed in July for £1m.

According to the Cabinet Office document, from January to April next year Palantir’s border flow tool will monitor any potential impacts resulting from border controls being imposed by EU member states on goods or people coming from the UK.

After that, the software will be used to implement the UK government’s own controls. “As immediate disruption associated with low levels of trader readiness for member state controls subsides, the analytical insights derived from the BFT will be used to support the phased implementation of UK controls,” it states.

The software, the document predicts, will help to bring about “delivery of one of the best borders in the world for 2025”.

Page 16 of the document
Page 16 of the document Photograph: handout

The document, which is dated from last week and marked “official – sensitive”, states the contract with Palantir to develop the border flow tool would be in place by 11 September 2020. Testing would last several months with the tool in place to go live on 14 December.

Palantir’s software will draw on data from HMRC, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Home Office and the Department for Transport. An amendment will be added to a government trade bill later this year to provide the legal basis for sharing the data required by the software, the document says.

A government spokesperson said Palantir would only process data in the UK. “The procurement of any services from Palantir will be done transparently and fully in line with well-established government procurement rules,” he said.

“Robust testing has shown Palantir’s technologies are effective, making the company well-placed to deliver the border flow tool. As with all contracts of this nature, the government will put in place strict measures to protect data.”

Palantir declined to comment.

• This article was amended on 17 September 2020 to correctly identify Peter Thiel as having accused Google of “treasonous” behaviour. An earlier version incorrectly attributed this to Alex Karp.


David Pegg

The GuardianTramp

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