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.
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.
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."
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.