Spying on the sector
Aid agencies are increasingly becoming worried about the emergence within the humanitarian sector of firms linked to the western intelligence and security establishment.
One firm in particular called Palantir – among whose initial investors was the CIA’s venture capital arm In-Q- Tel – provides data analysis software that has applications for the humanitarian sector.
The software can comb through data from documents, websites, social media and databases, turning that information into people, places, events, and displaying those connections on your computer screen, and allowing you to probe and analyse the links between them.
The tool can tackle a range of humanitarian problems: from people trafficking and gun-running to stemming floods. It could revolutionise disaster coordination, management and response.
But the global aid community is wary. Palantir retains extremely close links to the US security establishment, and the line between politics and humanitarian work is under constant attack and incrementally being pushed back.
An investigation by the humanitarian sector publication IRIN claims potential aid partners are spooked by the political and security connections with secretive firms like Palantir and that a major deal with a key UN agency recently fell through because of them.
Palantir’s data analysis system is already used by US humanitarian organisations including the Carter Center, the Clinton Foundation and and the dirty-money chasing arm of the George Clooney-affiliated Enough Project.
Many people working in the humanitarian sector say it is anathema to the principles of humanitarianism for aid workers to seek to partner with a firm that has close links covert intelligence operations.
One leading humanitarian sector executive said there were political dimensions to working with companies linked to intelligence agencies.
“Should humanitarian agencies have political concerns about this? I think they should and humanitarian principles should kick in when you have concerns about intelligence or military surveillance of clients,” she said.
But others say the benefits of using Palantir’s software outweigh the risks.
Palantir calls its humanitarian work “philanthropy engineering” and is effectively the pro-bono arm of the business, currently valued at $US20 billion.
Launched in 2004, the company’s core business spans three areas: government contracts (the defence and security establishment, but also FBI and local law enforcement); the financial sector, where its software helps detect fraud; and legal research.
Palantir makes its money from selling licenses to its groundbreaking software, which can be bespoke or off the shelf. But the real earner is in the super-smart staff it sends in to run the system for clients – its ‘forward deployed engineers’.
But it provides these services to humanitarians virtually for free. In the case of proposed partnerships with the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, and later the Accra-based UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response, Palantir offered such heavy discounts that the deals would have caused problems with the UN’s procurement procedures.
AMES Australia Senior Journalist