List of Britta Eder telephone contacts are full of people whom the German state considers criminals. As a defense attorney in Hamburg, her client list includes anti-fascists, anti-nuclear people and members of the PKK, a banned militant Kurdish nationalist organization.
For the sake of her clients, she used to be careful on the phone. “When I talk on the phone, I always think maybe I’m not alone,” she says. This shyness extends even to telephone conversations with the mother.
But when Hamburg passed a new law in 2019 allowing police to use data analysis software created by the CIA-backed company Palantir, she feared she could be pulled further into the big data network. Palantir’s Gotham platform feature allows police to map networks of phone contacts, putting people like Eder who are connected to alleged criminals but not criminals themselves under effective surveillance.
“I thought this was the next step in an attempt by the police to get more opportunities to monitor people without any concrete evidence linking them to a crime,” says Eder. Therefore, she decided to become one of the 11 contenders for the abolition of the Hamburg Law. Yesterday they succeeded.
The German Supreme Court declared the Hamburg Law unconstitutional and published strict rules for the first time on how automated data analysis tools like Palantir can be used by police, and warns against including data belonging to bystanders like witnesses or lawyers like Eder. Decree said that the Hamburg law and a similar law in Hesse “enable the police to create comprehensive profiles of individuals, groups and circles at the click of a mouse” without distinguishing between suspected criminals and people associated with them.
The decision did not ban Palantir’s Gotham tool, but it did limit the police’s ability to use it. “The risk of Eder being flagged or processed by Palantir will now be significantly reduced,” says Bijan Moyni, head of the legal department at the Berlin-based Civil Rights Society (GFF), which took the case to court.
Although Palantir was not the target of the ruling, the decision did deal a blow to the 19-year-old company’s police ambitions in Europe’s biggest market. Palantir, co-founded by billionaire Peter Thiel, who remains chairman of the board, helps police clients connect disparate databases and assemble massive amounts of people’s data into an accessible source of information. But guidance issued by a German court could influence similar decisions in the rest of the European Union, says Sebastian Golla, an assistant professor of criminology at the Ruhr University in Bochum, who wrote a complaint against Hamburg’s Palantir law. “I think it will have a bigger impact than just in Germany.”
During the trial, the head of the criminal police of the state of Hesse argued in favor of how they wanted to use Palantir, citing the success of the software known locally as “Hessendata”. In December, police were able to find a suspect in a coup attempt in Germany (in which a far-right group was arrested for plotting to violently overthrow the government) because Hessendata was able to link a phone number flagged from the wiretap to a number that had been sent earlier. in connection with a non-criminal traffic accident.