Humanitarian information gathering and the intelligence community

"Spies Like Us" movie poster

“Spies Like Us” movie poster

One of the questions I have looked into over the last few months, is how humanitarian organizations can use digital tools to get a better idea of what is going on in disaster-affected areas.

One of the companies I have come across during my research is “Palantir” – a company that is working very closely with the US Defense and Intelligence community. As a matter of fact, when you look for “Palantir 101” on YouTube, the first video you get is about how to use the software as an anti-terrorism analyst.

Analytical software like that could of course also be used in a humanitarian context and Palantir published two videos showing how they made their software available to humanitarian organizations after the Haiti earthquake. The videos are really interesting and I recommend you look at them, particularly the second one.

Dual use dilemma

This creates an interesting dilemma: should humanitarian organizations consider licensing software that has been developed primarily for the intelligence community? After all, software is very much a “dual use” product and one could argue that better tools for situational awareness could help save lives. Besides, the US military was very much involved in the Haiti response anyhow and even sent 7,000 troops into the country. So what’s the big deal?

Nevertheless, to me it just feels wrong. I think there is a difference between taking note of information that the military provides to the humanitarian community and contracting the same companies to gather information.

In my opinion, companies like Palantir are not the equivalent of Chrysler who also produced the Jeep for military purposes – to me they are more like a freight company that mainly ships guns. If information can be a weapon, then militarized analytics software is a weapons system. I think we should probably steer clear of them. But what is your opinion?

Please leave comments and thoughts below. Thanks.