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Campus activists find a target at the intersection of immigration and technology: Palantir

Illustration of students protesting Palantir on a college campus.
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Jorge Colombo for NBC News
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When Palantir, a private tech company that provides data analysis services, came to recruit at Duke University's campus in September, Cat Jeon stood next to the company's table asking her peers, "Do you know they work with ICE?"

Jeon and other Duke students were there to make sure every student who was considering a job with the company knew that it worked with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to facilitate deportations, a role that has put the secretive and often overlooked tech company on the radar of many activists.

"The Palantir guy was pissed," said Jeon, 21, who added that some students got out of line when informed of the company's work.

Duke is just one of the university campuses where students and sometimes faculty have organized protests and attempted to hit Palantir in a sensitive place for any tech company: recruiting.

On Nov. 19, students at 16 universities in the United States and United Kingdom including Stanford, Georgia Tech, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge and the University of Chicago protested the company on campus. The protests are organized in large part due to the work of Mijente, a nonprofit group that works on behalf of the Latinx community and brought attention to Palantir with its "No Tech for ICE" campaign.

The campaign against Palantir, activists say, is meant to force people to choose a side when technology companies have long tried to fashion themselves as apolitical, creating what activists see as a long overdue conversation.

For Bonnie Fan, 27, a master's student in public policy and data analytics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, protesting Palantir's presence on campus felt necessary.

"There was a lot of collective student outrage about it," Fan said, adding she was aware of Mijente's campaign on other campuses. "There was this sense that other campuses had protests against their recruitment and that we should do the same."

Around the country, students have held teach-ins about Palantir, disrupted ethics workshops sponsored by the company, held rallies, distributed flyers, and developed ethics-in-technology reading guides for their peers, in an attempt to shed light on Palantir's work with ICE and call the company out.

To Fan and her fellow protestors, Palantir represents "the ultimate example of tech and ethics gone wrong," she said. They have called on Carnegie Mellon to end its relationship with Palantir, which the university has rejected, telling NBC News in a statement that it "values freedom of speech" and "supports both the rights of the students protesting and those who wish to consider employment with particular employers."

Duke said it believes "students can and should be able to make their own choices about their future work."

Though far less known than other tech giants, Palantir sits at the intersection of technological and cultural flashpoints including immigration, data collection and the government's use of technology. Its work with ICE has made associating with the company toxic for some of its partners.

In June, a Berkeley conference on digital privacy that had been sponsored by the company since 2011 cut ties with Palantir, citing its work to enact family separation policy. In September, Lesbians Who Tech removed Palantir from its list of sponsors for its annual conference. The Grace Hopper Celebration, the largest conference of women in technology, followed suit shortly after, banning Palantir from its annual conference in October over concerns about the company's values. That same month, protesters chanted outside Palantir CEO Alex Karp's house on Halloween, saying nothing was "spookier" than working with ICE. (Activists said Karp's trick-or-treating neighbors were supportive of their campaign).

Mijente's message to Palantir has found particular traction on college campuses, where the government's immigration policy has mobilized young people to fight for change. Liza Mamedov-Turchinsky, a student at the University of California at Berkeley, said she believes Palantir participates in human rights abuses.

"We don't have any concentration camps in our area," Mamedov-Turchinsky, a junior, said, referring to migrant detention centers. "But what we do have is Palantir."

Professors Jeffrey Bokor and John Canny of Berkeley's electrical engineering and computer science department said in a statement their program doesn't restrict companies from coming to campus to accommodate the "diversity of views on corporate recruiting among students."

Members of Mijente, who fought deportations long before Trump took office, said that ICE's raids hinted at the use of more advanced technology. New tactics indicated ICE had begun to dig deeper into personal connections, such as showing up at the homes of relatives of immigrants who had no contact with immigration authorities.

"People were asking, 'How are they finding us?'" said Jacinta Gonzalez, senior campaign director at Mijente.

Partnering with a corporate research firm, Mijente identified Palantir as one of the "primary brokers" enabling ICE's agenda, Gonzalez said, a relationship that the company itself acknowledges.

Palantir has said it works with ICE to "combat human trafficking, locate terrorists, and convict drugs and arms traffickers." Mijente has countered that the work is more insidious, providing the technology that facilitates the agency's deportations and raids, including the arrest of almost 700 people in a single day in Mississippi.

Palantir did not return a request for comment for this article.

Mijente said they chose college campuses as one of the places to focus their campaign because Palantir needs graduates to come work for them, and it targets select universities for recruitment. Mijente decided to target those same schools, saying it was inspired by student protests during the Vietnam War, when students tried to stop Dow Chemical, the maker of napalm, from recruiting on campuses.

Gonzalez said Palantir hires students "without giving them a clear understanding of what their labor is being used to build."

Efforts to turn tech workers against Palantir have shown some signs of success. The Washington Post reported that Palantir employees confronted the company's chief executive over its ties to ICE, with 200 staffers signing a letter saying the work troubled them.

Competition among tech companies for top-tier talent is also famously competitive. Evan Pollock, managing partner of the recruiting firm Objective Paradigm, said that for some employees at Palantir or elsewhere, the moral questions raised by protests can be the final push needed to leave for another company, especially if they were already considering a move.

"My guess is that there's probably more engineers than not who are against Palantir using their technology to push immigrants out of the U.S.," Pollock said, adding that the protests may make a company like Palantir a target for tech rivals looking to poach talent.

Activists still have a ways to go. Charles Moore, who recruits tech executives and engineers as a managing partner at NextGen Global Executive Search, said less than 10 percent of potential job candidates ask questions about a potential employer's social justice positions or willingness to accommodate employees' views.

That widespread dispassion is why Mijente and students on their college campuses are focused so hard on educating their peers. Working for Palantir, they say, is not just a moral consideration, but a material one with serious consequences.

"These products can't function if nobody is in the building to write the code and keep the lights on," Mamedov-Turchinsky, the Berkeley student, said. "We need to hit them where it hurts, and ask our peers, 'Which side of history do you want to stand on?'"

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