About 50 tech workers and members of civil rights groups demonstrated in front of Palo Alto-based Palantir Technologies on Wednesday morning, demanding the Silicon Valley data-mining firm not participate in creating a Muslim registry for the incoming Trump administration.
The protesters said they are concerned the company would work with the administration to create the registry by using its analytics technologies to mine law-enforcement databases. President-elect Donald Trump said during his campaign that he wanted to create a Muslim registry as part of his "extreme vetting" plan to prevent terrorists from entering the country.
Palantir has many federal contracts including with the CIA, the FBI and the National Security Agency. Palantir's co-founder and chairman Peter Thiel is a senior Trump adviser.
Tech Workers Coalition members became concerned about Palantir's potential participation in a Muslim registry after documents obtained by the Electronic Privacy Information Center found Palantir has created a system for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency to track and assess immigrants. The documents, which were published in a story by online tech-news publication The Verge, note that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can access the system, called the Analytical Framework for Intelligence (AFI).
Last week Thiel and company CEO Alex Karp denied to The New York Times and Forbes respectively that Palantir would create such a registry. Karp said the Trump administration has not asked the company to do so.
In addition, last week, Trump's picks for attorney general and Homeland Security secretary -- Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly -- said during their Senate hearings that they do not agree with the idea of a Muslim registry.
Demonstrator Valerie Aurora, whose company Frame Shift Consulting works to increase diversity and inclusion at technology firms, said Palantir should make a fuller commitment.
"Palantir had made a narrow, specific promise that they won't build a Muslim registry, but they should be more transparent," she said.
Tech Workers Coalition organizers Matt Schaefer and Jason Prado agreed. Twitter, Facebook, Apple, Google, IBM, Uber and Microsoft have all proactively said they won't help create a Muslim registry.
"This particular action is about calling on Palantir to specifically pledge not to create a Muslim registry and to publicly describe how they are going to prevent the abuse of data collected in some of their systems," said Schaefer, a tech worker. "It's a call to people in tech to stand up and fulfill their obligation to their community. I think they have a substantial amount of power and capability. We're trying to address our fellow workers to hold their own companies accountable and to be a check on that power."
Said Prado: "We want these companies ... to reveal how the data is used. We're raising awareness about the impact (technology) tools can have in the world. ... We see this as a beginning. Silicon Valley tech workers are finding their voice, and we plan to hold more demonstrations anywhere there is a potential for technology to be used for ill."
Palantir said in a request for comment: "Both our CEO and our board chair have stated that Palantir will not participate in any kind of Muslim registry."
In a policy statement on its website, the company further states that a core component of its mission is protecting fundamental rights to privacy and civil liberties.
"Some argue that society must 'balance' freedom and safety, and that in order to better protect ourselves from those who would do us harm, we have to give up some of our liberties. We believe that this is a false choice in many areas. Particularly in the world of data analysis, liberty does not have to be sacrificed to enhance security.
"Palantir is constantly looking for ways to protect privacy and individual liberty through its technology while enabling the powerful analysis necessary to generate the actionable intelligence that our law enforcement and intelligence agencies need to fulfill their missions."
In October 2012, the company created the Palantir Council of Advisors on Privacy and Civil Liberties.
"Technological advances often raise novel privacy and civil liberties issues. Where the law is silent or undeveloped, Palantir consults with privacy and civil-liberties advocates and some of the top legal experts in the world to figure out how to build our technology with safeguards that can be used as part of a responsible information handling regime. We obligate ourselves to do what is right, not just what is legal," the company stated.
A federal program for registering non-U.S. citizens from certain countries is not a new idea. In the wake of 9/11, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System was launched in 2002 and required adult men visiting from 25 countries, many in the Middle East, to register upon arrival, according to the Federal Register. It was abandoned in 2011, and in late December, the Department of Homeland Security removed supporting regulations that were still on the books.
Demonstrators Wednesday said the drive to get Silicon Valley companies to protect immigrants and to be more transparent regarding the capabilities and use of their technologies protects all Americans.
"I read history and the things that Trump proposes will directly lead to human rights abuses on a massive scale, so I want to start fighting now," Aurora said.
Rachel Melendes, a member of Unite Here, a union that represents hotel and hospitality workers at technology companies, said that people in her industry are scared.
"I think data gathering has been happening for a long time -- people have been profiling people for a long time," she said.