Palantir Technologies, founded by Peter Thiel and one of the most valuable privately-held companies in Silicon Valley, is named after magical stones in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth that allowed its users to see great distances even through solid rock. One unfortunate side effect of using the palantiri, however, is that it drove some of its users out of their minds.

Palantir Technologies is in the news because it has apparently been using New Orleans as a laboratory for its predictive policing software since 2012 without informing the city council it was doing so. Only some officers in the police department and Mayor Mitch Landrieu were in on the plan.

It was able to circumvent the usual public procurement process, according to the Verge:

Predictive policing technology has proven highly controversial wherever it is implemented, but in New Orleans, the program escaped public notice, partly because Palantir established it as a philanthropic relationship with the city through Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s signature NOLA For Life program. Thanks to its philanthropic status, as well as New Orleans’ “strong mayor” model of government, the agreement never passed through a public procurement process.

New Orleans suffered from a horrific murder rate and in 2012, Landrieu jumped at Palantir’s offer to help at no cost to the city. Among Palantir’s previous clients were the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan, for which Palantir devised an algorithm to predict where IEDs were likely to be planted.

The Tactic

For New Orleans, Palantir used a technique called social network analysis (SNA) that combined existing police case data and more than 70,000 police field interviews with data scraped off the internet like social media posts, car registrations, firearms databases, and other data sources in order to create a highly individualized target list of less than 4,000 people that the algorithm deemed likely to commit a crime.

The people on the list were then called in for a police interview and were not-so-gently reminded that they were being watched and the book would be thrown at them if they committed a crime. The tactic worked for a couple years after 2012 when the murder rate dropped but it has been trending up again in the last three years.

The system has its skeptics. From The Verge:

Even within the law enforcement community, there are concerns about the potential civil liberties implications of the sort of individualized prediction Palantir developed in New Orleans, and whether it’s appropriate for the American criminal justice system.

“They’re creating a target list, but we’re not going after Al Qaeda in Syria,” said a former law enforcement official who has observed Palantir’s work first-hand as well as the company’s sales pitches for predictive policing. The former official spoke on condition of anonymity to freely discuss their concerns with data mining and predictive policing. “Palantir is a great example of an absolutely ridiculous amount of money spent on a tech tool that may have some application,” the former official said. “However, it’s not the right tool for local and state law enforcement.”

In the meantime, Palantir cashed in on its “philanthropy” in New Orleans as it began selling its predictive policing algorithms to other cities in the US and to countries like Denmark using its “success” in New Orleans as its selling point. Palantir has also begun to supply Israel with predictive intelligence systems.

With more cities adopting predictive policing, more information has come in that question the program’s effectiveness. It is too soon, however, to dismiss algorithm-based law enforcement but it does point out the need for the independent verification of software that would govern the lives of citizens.