Today I woke up with a piece of good news. ICIIJ was offering a new tool, called DataShare, so journalists (and also researchers and civil servants, I guess) could analyse long reports, in different languages and formats (e.g. image, PDF, text). Datashare is based on some of the same technology that helped ICIJ publish its biggest projects (i.e. Panama Papers and Paradise Papers). but instead of relying on ICIJ’s servers, Datashare can be installed on your own computer.
I was just imagining DataShare’s applications for my research when I heard that CIA-funded software firm Palantir has signed an agreement with the UN’s World Food Programme to analyse its data. Immediate reactions from privacy and data protection activists ensued: Jieke Jansen wondered on her Twitter account: “The
@UN promotes Freedom of Information request across the world. But why can’t I #FOIA the @UN? How can we have access to the #humanrights and #privacy impact assessment of Palantir deployment at @WFP if they are not subjected to the same #transparency standards they promote?”
Zara Rahman commented also on her Twitter account: “Horribly irresponsible and potentially incredibly harmful, new agreement between WFP and CIA-funded company Palantir. “Finding cost efficiencies” is no excuse for putting recipients of aid at risk.”
I cannot help but wonder about the data Davids of this world who, such as ICIJ, are trying to utilise the data infrastructure (that is, the hardware, software and processes needed to transform data into value) to increase the transparency and accountability of the powerful. The data Goliaths –including the likes of Facebook, Palantir, Google and Cambridge Annalytica– will always dominate the technology landscape; but please, let’s not give them also access and data about the vulnerable people who depend on the WFP’s food programmes.
WFP is led by David Beasley, a US President Donald Trump’s supporter; ironically, Trump has been reducing US contributions to the UN. Palantir’s predatory data- and code-grabbing tactics have raised eyebrows. In 2011, a company called I2 Inc sued Palantir claiming it had illicitly obtained its algorithm; they settled out of court for $10 million. In 2011 too, Anonymous revealed a plan, involving Palantir, to attack WikiLeaks, but the company ended up apologising for its involvement in the plan. And in 2018, Christopher Wylie, the former research director of Cambridge Analytica—the company that obtained the Facebook data of 50 million US voters— told a parliamentary inquiry in the UK that Palantir employees had obtained the data at the “heart of the privacy scandal” that engulfed Facebook. The company first denied any contact with Cambridge Analytica, but later admitted that one of its employees had indeed communicated with Cambridge Analytica. This is the kind of company the UN agency is partnering with.
The WFP deal sounds like asking the ruthless Goliath to rule with fairness, responsibility and empathy.