German federal states test police software with Palantir function

For police investigations, publicly available data on the Internet plays an important role. The information is also used more intensively in everyday police work and combined with information from several police databases.

Under the name SENTINEL, German police authorities from three federal states have tested new software for „mission management“. During an investigation, the application searches in social media for the location and current photos of the target person. Prior to police access, information on access to buildings or construction measures can also be queried. The software should also show possible escape routes of the wanted persons via an Internet search.

The research project lasted 18 months and was led by the German Police University in Münster. The police headquarters in Osnabrück and the police headquarters in Dortmund and Munich were involved. The costs of 84,600 euros were borne by the private Stüllenberg Foundation in Hamburg. Last week, the participants presented their results at a final conference.

„Online Footprint“ for the Police

Querying services such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram is referred to as Open Source Intelligence (OSINT). Authorities may not use the publicly posted information without cause, but for a police measure. Under the title „Serious Crimes and the Role of Social Media“ (SCARSOME), the Police College had tested similar procedures before the start of SENTINEL. These were mainly hostage-takings, kidnappings or amok cases in which the perpetrators are active in social media. In addition to the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA), the federal police and police authorities from North Rhine-Westphalia were involved.

The EU police agency Europol also evaluates user tracks on the Internet in the case of terrorist incidents. Victims of the Bataclan attack in Paris also communicated via Twitter and Facebook. At that time, a „First Response Network“ registered all active social media accounts in the vicinity of crime scenes with the help of the geotagging function. The „online footprint“ is also used by Europol for the subsequent identification of witnesses.

 One single search field

In SENTINEL, the authorities investigated how OSINT data can be integrated into daily police work. The three federal states involved sent so-called „Intel Officers“ to Münster for this purpose. With „hessenDATA“ the police in Hessen uses a comparable platform. The commercial software compares defined search terms with three Hessian police databases and internal police reports. Additional data sources include radio cell queries and forensic data from confiscated telephones.

„hessenDATA“ can link all findings with information from social networks. In contrast to SENTINEL, this is done via a single search field. However, it is unclear how this function is used, because the police databases may not be operated in systems connected to the Internet.

Palantir software soon available throughout Hesse

The Hessian data protection commissioner did not raise objections against the Palantir software, but a parliamentarian investigative committee should clarify the dubious awarding practice. Hesse was given the software by the US manufacturer Palantir for one cent. Initially, the Hessian Ministry of the Interior had limited the use of the software to 400 anti-Terrorism investigators of the State Criminal Police Office. Meanwhile, „hessenDATA“ is being used by 200 other employees in the area of state security for investigating organized crime.

In August, Interior Minister Peter Beuth (CDU) described the application as an „indispensable part of police work“. Under the name „hessenDATA mobile“, a Hesse-wide Distribution for the application is in preparation, according to the Minister. This mobile phone version has been tested by a special unit since last year. Police officers involved in a mission can use it to coordinate their tactics, among other things.

Dragnet investigation in „Personalized Evidence“

One of the databases Palantir queries is the file „Personalized Evidence“ („Personengebundene Hinweise“, PHW). In the federal states it is kept under their own responsibility, in Hesse it is stored in the „Police Information System“ (POLAS). The PHW mark people, for example, with „drug consumption“, „behavioural disorder“, „risk of infection“ or „willingness to use violence“.

If the persons are stopped during an inspection, the officers are informed about a potential danger. This self-protection is one of the purposes of the PHW files. In fact, however, they are primarily used for criminal prosecution, and their connection to systems such as „hessenDATA“ is likely to reinforce this trend.

Many of the PHW categories, including the politically motivated „offenders“, are also brought together by the BKA in the nationwide information system INPOL. Following discussions on the admissibility of stigmatising features, the BKA has renamed the PHWs stored in INPOL into „Investigative Supportive Evidence“ („Ermittlungsunterstützende Hinweise“, EHW).

Deployments also for „street crime“

In SENTINEL, the social media survey should provide further „information on certain milieus“. They are named „owner of fighting dog“, „sporting marksman“ or „boxer“. Combined with the relevant police databases or the weapons register, the information available on the Internet provides a comprehensive picture of the target persons. As with „hessenDATA“, the procedures tested in SENTINEL could be used for manhunts. According to the police academy, missions are also conceivable in the field of „street crime“. After a nationwide introduction, it would also be possible to connect the fire brigade and rescue service.

Nothing is known about the results of SENTINEL. However, the project description already advises the establishment of so-called „Real-Time Intelligence Centres“ modelled on the Netherlands. According to this, these operation centres should carry out OSINT searches „by default“ and link them with information from police data systems. Before this palantisation of the German police, the police academy will presumably carry out further research. Before OSINT can be used more extensively in everyday police work, „personnel, material and legal framework conditions have to be considered“.

Image: All rights reserved Project SENTINEL.

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.