German Police Deploy Controversial Silicon Valley Surveillance Tool

Critics worry that by partnering with Palantir, a Silicon Valley company with ties to the CIA, police in the German state of Hesse are opening themselves up to a potential security breach.

In Berlin's Bundetag
In Berlin's Bundetag
Jannis Brühl

FRANKFURT — When Chief Inspector Otto activates "Gotham" on his laptop, what's hidden suddenly becomes visible. Lines appear between portrait photos of grumpy, sullen-faced Salafists and their contacts. There are mobile phone icons too, with telephone numbers that lead to other people.

With his mouse, Otto drags a name onto a field called "Graph," and the Gotham software builds another spider web of information on the screen. Otto can see who, among the people under surveillance, called whom, and when; to which Islamist group they belong; which weapons and which cars belong to which person. The software is like a second brain for the police, a brain with X-ray vision that detects dozens of connections in a second.

"We would never have found that before," Otto says, referring to the time when police officers had to click their way through several databases for hours, or even days.

Chief Inspector Otto, who doesn't want his first name to be public, chases Salafists from his laptop. He sits deep in the belly of the Frankfurt police headquarters, where a sticker on a door announces in Hessian dialect: "Mir basse uff," meaning: "We're keeping an eye out."

Otto is part of a small team that has been testing the future of police work for the German state of Hesse since 2017. Others say he's testing the future of the surveillance state. Some 200 state guards have already been trained in working with Gotham, named after Batman's hometown.

The version of Gotham adapted for Hesse is called "Hessendata" and was created by Palantir, a Palo Alto-based company and one of the Silicon Valley's most controversial. It now has a direct link to the German police force.

Palantir was founded in 2003 by Peter Thiel, founder of Paypal, an investor in Facebook and billionaire. An important early financier of Palantir was In-Q-Tel, the CIA's investment offshoot. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Palantir was considering going public in 2019 — and could be valued at up to $41 billion. Thiel named the company after the "seeing stones' from Lord of the Rings.

Should this U.S. military-digital complex be allowed to get so close to the German police's data?

The list of the company's oldest customers goes beyond the secret services. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the software was used by the U.S. Army to organize the mass of information that the war stirred up. Palantir boss Alexander Karp has been a member of the supervisory board of Axel Springer (one of Europe's largest publishing houses) since March 2018, and his software is now also being used in Germany in the Frankfurt project.

Politicians in the opposition have been asking the question of whether a company that has grown so deeply into the U.S. military-digital complex should be allowed to get so close to the German police's data.

A quantum leap

When Chief Inspector Otto opens Hessendata, he sees a search box — a kind of Robocop version of Google with which he can screen suspects and their environment. Gotham's power lies in the fact that it can combine information from various sources that, for a long time, were incompatible. The result is an ever larger information network.

Hessendata uses seven sources: Three police databases for criminal cases and investigations, plus connection data from telephone surveillance — who called whom, when and where? In addition, there is data from selected mobile phones of suspects and telexes. Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office used these to transmit information about Anis Amri — the perpetrator of the 2016 Berlin terror attack — to police officers throughout the country.

Hessendata goes one step further and integrates data from social media. The police receive all information from suspects' Facebook profiles as "Facebook Business Records." To do this, they have to submit a request for legal assistance to U.S. authorities, who obtain the Facebook data. Chief Inspector Otto scrolls through chats, likes, and logins with the IP address of a person under surveillance, all machine-readable. Under each message in Arabic, for example, are translations from the police interpreters.

The messages are about the making of bombs. The chats are real, so much so that after their analysis, investigators arrested a 17-year-old in February. He is said to have planned an attack. The police present this as the success of the new piece of software. The Facebook data set is so extensive that, according to Otto, "It would have filled 14 meters of shelves."

Gerhard Bereswill calls it quantum leap. "We have entered a new world," he says. The president of Frankfurt's police laughs and points to the screen on which Chief Inspector Otto is presenting the program. "I'm always thrilled: Everything with one click."

Using Palantir — Photo: Jack Knych

He tells an anecdote from the time of the Red Army Faction and the German Autumn of 1977. There had been two tips about the conspiratorial apartment in which kidnappers were holding prisoner Hanns Martin Schleyer, a former officer of the SS and, at the time, president of the German Employers' Association. But one clue was in the inbox of the Cologne police, the other at the then Federal Criminal Police Office. No one connected the dots. Today, Bereswill implies, Hessendata would be able to stitch it all together and thus find Schleyer.

State secrets

And yet, not everyone finds this new development positive. Civil rights activists criticize the connection of police databases. Because actually these silos, in which personal information is stored, must be strictly separated from each other — this is required by data protection legislation. That is why each database has its own opening order. It regulates exactly how the information is to be handled, who is allowed to be in the file and who is not.

Andrej Hunko, a member of the Bundestag from the left party Die Linke, says of Hessendata that, "It is de facto dragnet policing, which has narrow legal limits. In my opinion, these are not observed in Hesse." Gerhard Bereswill says that the Hessian Data Protection Commissioner has approved everything. And there are deletion deadlines: Anyone who appears in databases but is not a suspect will soon be removed again.

Nevertheless, there is trouble. The state's interior minister, Peter Beuth (CDU), awarded the contract to Palantir without requesting any offers from applicants. The price, according to the purchase order: 0.01 euro. The true price remains secret "because of the security interests' of the state of Hesse. Since July, an investigative committee has been meeting in the state parliament in Wiesbaden. It's supposed to find out why the minister committed himself so early on to Palantir. Beuth argues that after the attacks of 2016 the situation was so explosive that digital upgrades had to be carried out quickly. Only Palantir offered suitable software.

There is no control over what Palantir does with such access.

Wolfgang Greilich (from the Liberal party FDP), the committee's deputy chairman, is not satisfied with this statement. "The company has certainly earned a questionable reputation, among other things through its contacts with Cambridge Analytica" (the company that was at the center of the scandal about data tapped from millions of Facebook accounts during the U.S. election campaign). Palantir employees are said to have gone in and out of Cambridge Analytica.

They are now doing the same with the Hessian police. According to police chief Bereswill, "four to six" employees of the company are taking care of the Hessendata technology in the Frankfurt police headquarters. However, they are supposedly always accompanied by police officers. The new platform is located in the computer center of a state-owned company, the Hessische Zentrale für Datenverarbeitung (HZD, Hesse's Center for Data Processing). Bereswill says that "Figuratively speaking, all our data is stored there in the basement, protected physically, and digitally through firewalls."

Security questions

Still, as Greilich notes, Palantir's employees were there when the system was first put into operation. "They "refueled" the servers at the HZD under supervision," he says. "The HZD does not have any insight into the installed procedures." Although there is a "no-spy clause" in the contract, how much is it worth if the company is able to remotely maintain the systems? "There is no control over what Palantir does with such access. No one can say for sure."

In a recent committee inquiry, the HZD's technical director said he couldn't rule out 100% the possibility that a secretly installed digital backdoor would drain data. However, Palantir employees were working on specially secured police PCs. "I am extremely skeptical about a cooperation with such a secret service supplier, because it is to be feared that the CIA or NSA — with or without the knowledge of the company — will gain access to German personal data," says Andrej Hunko. Gerhard Bereswill, on the other hand, says: "Can the CIA access our data? No."

The use of Gotham against Salafists is just the beginning. The police have already suggested expanding the program's scope from state security to organized crime and serious crimes such as murder and robbery. And the other federal states are following very closely at how Palantir's software is building its networks in Frankfurt.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport


Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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