Britta Eder’s phone contact list is full of people the German state considers criminals. As a defense lawyer in Hamburg, his client list includes anti-fascists, people who campaign against nuclear power, and members of the PKK, a banned Kurdish nationalist organization.
For the sake of her client, she is used to being careful on the phone. “When I talk on the phone I always think, maybe I’m not alone,” she says. That self-awareness even extends to phone calls with her mother.
But when Hamburg passed new legislation in 2019 allowing police to use data analytics software built by the CIA-backed company Palantir, she feared she could be drawn further into the big data dragnet. A feature of Palantir’s Gotham platform allows police to map phone contact networks, effectively putting people like Eder—who are connected to alleged criminals but not criminals themselves—under surveillance.
“I thought, this is the next step in police trying to find more possibilities to look at people without any concrete evidence that links them to a crime,” says Eder. So she decided to be one of 11 claimants who wanted to overturn the Hamburg law. Yesterday, they succeeded.
Germany’s top court ruled Hamburg’s law unconstitutional and issued strict guidelines for the first time on how police can use automated data analysis tools like Palantir’s, and warned against including audience-related data, such as witnesses or lawyers like Eder. . The ruling said the Hamburg law, and a similar law in Hesse, “allows the police, with one click, to create comprehensive profiles of people, groups and circles,” without distinguishing between suspected criminals and people associated with them.
The decision did not ban Palantir’s Gotham tool but limited the way police can use it. “Eder’s risk of being flagged or having her data processed by Palantir will be greatly reduced,” says Bijan Moini, legal head of the Berlin-based Civil Rights Association (GFF), which brought the case to court.
Although Palantir was not the target of the ruling, the decision was still a blow to the 19-year-old company’s ambitions to police Europe’s largest market. Founded by billionaire Peter Thiel, who remains chairman, Palantir helps police clients connect disparate databases and pull vast amounts of people’s data into an accessible source of information. But the guidance issued by the German court can influence similar decisions across the rest of the European Union, says Sebastian Golla, assistant professor of criminology at Ruhr University Bochum, who wrote the legal complaint Hamburg Palantir. “I think this will have a bigger impact than it will have in Germany.”