Hush-hush Data Firm Palantir Snags ICE Case-Tracking Deal

In this March 30, 2012 photo, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents take a suspect into custody.

In this March 30, 2012 photo, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents take a suspect into custody. Gregory Bull/AP File Photo

The deal is part of an $818 million program to replace a 1980s-era watch-list system.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has awarded secretive data-mining firm Palantir a $42 million contract to redo the investigation agency's failed case filing system. 

The deal is part of an $818 million program to replace a 1987 watch-list system, TECS. That tool, which predates the formation of the Department of Homeland Security and stands for Treasury Enforcement Communication System, cannot share information among various key databases. 

Palantir faces an aggressive timetable for development. The company must power on the system within one year, according to federal contracting documents. This spring, production-ready software must be all set for testing.  

Palantir is known for its ties to the National Security Agency and other spy agencies, including the CIA, whose venture capital arm initially funded the company.

ICE is under congressional pressure to execute the computer project on time and within budget. 

In a December report and at a February House hearing, the Government Accountability Office told lawmakers ICE had no completion date or cost estimate for the new system.

Previous Project Canned Last June

Originally, ICE planned to transfer over all case management functions from TECS between 2009 and December 2013, move off TECS entirely by 2015 and then finish enhancements by fiscal 2017. But in June 2013 – after spending $19 million – the agency realized the design was not doable. The agency scrapped most of the work and started over.

According to a May statement of objectives, ICE now envisions software that, by Sept. 30, 2015, will track investigations from triggering incident through court ruling. 

ICE probes money laundering, online child pornography, identity theft and other crimes that cross borders. 

The software is intended to allow investigators to quickly connect people, places and events, among other evidence available through the system. 

The application will pull information from internal systems, other DHS records and data from law enforcement partners across the country. 

It will be anchored in a private DHS cloud.

The tool will allow agents to locate a name – for instance "John Doe" – in both database fields and unstructured narrative descriptions. 

One contract requirement is that it "receive and present search responses from all sources with which the system interfaces within five seconds of the source data being made available" to the database. Another specification states the application "shall query and search specified data sources that are internal to ICE or DHS and external to DHS."

ICE is not the only federal law enforcement agency struggling to track digital files.

The Justice Department inspector general last week released a report on the FBI’s new case management system, Sentinel, assailing its searching and indexing features for slowing the investigations of special agents and the productivity levels of evidence technicians.