The Humanitarian-Intelligence Nexus

This morning we woke up to surprising — and indeed somewhat shocking — news that the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) has announced a five-year ‘partnership’ with the technology company Palantir. While many of the specific details are as yet still unknown, we are able to glean the following facts from the press release and, as ever, excellent reporting by IRIN’s Ben Parker:

  • The partnership aims to help WFP “use its data to streamline the delivery of food and cash-based assistance” using Palantir’s Foundry software platform
  • The main driver is the reduction of operational costs associated with WFP service delivery
  • The partnership builds on an initial pilot project supported by Palantir’s supply chain optimization tool called Optimus

Over the last five years Palantir has been increasingly visible in the non-governmental (NGO) and humanitarian sectors. Its pro bono projects have included analytics to understand homelessness, predictive logistics for refugee aid charities, work with an anti-human trafficking NGO, and efforts to rebuild areas devastated by natural disasters. However, all these projects are characterized by the application of the company’s analytics products to populations Palantir is already involved in analyzing on behalf of governments. As well as providing the company with good press, there is the benefit of providing practice in analyzing vulnerable and at-risk groups. Critically, these groups are not only at-risk, but are also often considered risky by the same governmental actors who hire Palantir for national security, immigration enforcement, and predictive policing purposes. If you are an aid organization, the poor, the marginalized, and the displaced, whether in California or Lebanon, are targets for protection. If you are a government interested in national security and radicalization, those same populations easily become targets for prevention. By engaging with both these framings, Palantir’s systems and the company itself become the interface between emergency aid and national security.

When this partnership was launched at today’s public event in Geneva, it was announced that the data integration effort would not involve any beneficiaries’ personally identifiable information (PII). This is an increasingly common trope in data use and data exploitation, meant to downplay concerns about the processing of potentially sensitive data. It is also a red herring. Companies like Palantir do not need access to PII or personal data to draw tremendously deep insights into people’s lives, behaviors, movements, and associations. The risks are not from being individually identified, but from being profiled and targeted for intervention as a type, rather than as an individual. If a data mining system identifies particular characteristics that make refugees ‘likely to commit fraud’, all those with those characteristics become suspect, regardless of whether they have committed fraud or not. Pointed at some of the most vulnerable people in the world, the possibilities for harm through unfair targeting in relation to particular profiles are significant.

More generally, this endeavor reflects the power of innovation discourses in the humanitarian sector, as well as the sector’s increasingly enthusiastic embrace of technology without full appreciation of its risks – despite increasing calls for data responsibility and ‘doing no harm’ by various humanitarian actors. WFP’s CIO Enrica Porcari described her organization as being on a “very aggressive digital transformation journey” and said WFP had a “moral imperative to leverage technology to achieve efficiencies”. Such a view is difficult to reconcile with other perspectives from the sector, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, which acknowledge the risks associated with the use of digital technology and who understand that aggressive digital transformation most likely means doing harm to beneficiaries.

We encourage WFP to disclose as much information as possible about the partnership with Palantir, including for example the basis of the cost-savings analysis from the pilot project on food procurement in Iraq that has been used to justify the partnership (valued at $45 million), as well as more information on how the program is expected operate. More transparency about the deal would no doubt serve the public interest and allow for a more open and informed debate about the role of companies like Palantir in humanitarian operations, as well as the potential risks to beneficiaries of WFP aid.

Update: WFP has released a statement on the partnership with Palantir outlining additional details.

About the project

Places and populations that were previously digitally invisible are now part of a ‘data revolution’ that is being hailed as a transformative tool for human and economic development. Yet this unprecedented expansion of the power to digitally monitor, sort, and intervene is not well connected to the idea of social justice, nor is there a clear concept of how broader access to the benefits of data technologies can be achieved without amplifying misrepresentation, discrimination, and power asymmetries.

We therefore need a new framework for data justice integrating data privacy, non-discrimination, and non-use of data technologies into the same framework as positive freedoms such as representation and access to data. This project will research the lived experience of data technologies in high- and low-income countries worldwide, seeking to understand people’s basic needs with regard to these technologies. We will also seek the perspectives of civil society organisations, technology companies, and policymakers.