UK Awards Running of Border Operations Centre to US Firm Palantir Involved in Human Rights Violation

UK Border Force contract given to Palantir

A new UK Border Operations Centre will use big data technology produced by controversial firm Palantir, to address challenges of border disruption starting next year.

As the UK steps up plans to leave the EU’s single market and customs union at the end of this year, it has started working on a new UK Border Operations Centre which will provide round-the-clock monitoring of goods and passengers at the British ports.

The centre will use £20m cutting-edge software produced by the US firm to gather information from various government computers to minimise potential overwhelming disruption and lorry-queues at the border in the days and weeks after January 1, 2021.

Palantir has different controversies trailing it after its system was used by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to arrest the parents of unaccompanied child migrants at the US border, which led to their detention.

ICE also used the same system to plan mass raids, including raids of workplaces. These raids led to the arrest of about 700 people, children’s separation from their parents, the detention of hundreds of people and as many deportations.

Amnesty International has condemned Palantir’s human rights violations in the past, and the UK Cabinet Office in awarding them the border centre contract [Image: Christian Lue, Unsplash]

The human rights organisation Amnesty International, which had in strong terms condemned Palantir’s involvement in the irreparable harm in the US, has hit out at the UK Cabinet Office over its decision to use the widely criticised technology for its border control.

 According to Matt Mahmoudi, Amnesty’s researcher on artificial intelligence, “Palantir is a troubling choice of service provider for the UK Government, particularly in regards to immigration services given the controversy surrounding its involvement in the US immigration system.”

The Liberal Democrats also reacted to this. Its foreign affairs spokesperson, Layla Moran, said: “Ministers are clearly not only involved in awarding dodgy contracts to their friends but now they are giving contracts out to firms with serious questions about their involvement with human rights abuses.”

Moran recalled how people were rightly horrified by the actions of the ICE agency back in 2018 after seeing the images of separated families at the border and “children sheltered in cages.”

Meanwhile, the company has said it is extremely concerned about human rights protection, privacy rights, and civil liberties.

Palantir’s software will gather data from HMRC, the Home Office, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Department of Transport. A government source stated that the software will only process data in the UK and also promised there would be transparency and due diligence in the procurement of any services from the system.

“Ministers are clearly not only involved in awarding dodgy contracts to their friends but now they are giving contracts out to firms with serious questions about their involvement with human rights abuses.”

Palantir was co-founded by Peter Thiel in 2004 and has developed a multibillion-dollar tech business, which is largely being used by US government agencies. 

Though Minister for the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove has said that the UK has the ambition to create “the world’s most effective border by 2025,” but long queues of thousands of lorries at the early stage of post-Brexit next month are inevitable.

The looming hold-ups at the border is another challenge British businesses will have to grapple with, along with several other Brexit-related issues posing threats to their survival, such as changes in immigration rules for migrant workers and a likely no-deal scenario with EU trading bloc.

“The government is putting the burden on businesses to prepare for the end of the transition period when it has not explained what it is those businesses are getting ready for,” said shadow minister Rachel Reeves.

Road Haulage Association, as well as several other business groups, also believe that business is not ready for Brexit. Its managing director Rod McKenzie said it is not the fault of British business owners, whom he suspected, are “being lined up for the blame.” “The best-case scenario is [the transition] will be shambolic. Worst case scenario is it will be catastrophic, supply chains stop,” McKenzie said.

Crucially, with just three weeks until the end of the transition period to leave the EU, UK’s hope of securing an effective set of trade deals appears to dwindle. This further signals an end to free movements of UK goods to and from EU countries, and the inevitable long queues at the border will add to the burdens on British businesses post-Brexit.

Header image [PA Media, BBC]