Yes, while a tyrannical government that violates the law and searches and seizes without probable cause and a warrant are realities that we should be concerned about, there is a tremendous threat coming from a company called Palantir, which is backed by the Central Intelligence Agency.
Palantir presents themselves as “We build products that make people better at their most important work — the kind of work you read about on the front page of the newspaper, not just the technology section.”
Indeed, we have read about some of their work on the front page of the newspaper, including the trial of the Oregon protests of 2016, where Palantir software was used to aid in sorting data for the FBI’s information they gathered from Facebook.
The CIA itself was an early investor in the startup through In-Q-Tel, the agency’s venture capital branch.
Palantir has landed “at least $1.2 billion” in federal contracts since 2009, according to an August 2016 report in Politico, but will not release the names of its government clientele.
However, since it is CIA-backed, it should be of significant concern to the American people, especially given the report from The Guardian which claimed that Palantir wields “as much real world power as Google.”
In The Guardian piece, it is noted:
Palantir, the CIA-backed startup, is Minority Report come true. It is all-powerful, yet no one knows it even exists. Palantir does not have an office, it has a “SCIF” on a back street in Palo Alto, California. SCIF stands for “sensitive compartmentalised information facility”. Palantir says its building “must be built to be resistant to attempts to access the information within. The network must be ‘airgapped’ from the public internet to prevent information leakage.”
Palantir’s defence systems include advanced biometrics and walls impenetrable to radio waves, phone signal or internet. Its data storage is blockchained: it cannot be accessed by merely sophisticated hacking, it requires digital pass codes held by dozens of independent parties, whose identities are themselves protected by blockchain.
What is Palantir protecting? A palantir is a “seeing stone” in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings; a dark orb used by Saruman to be able to see in darkness or blinding light. “Palantir” means “one that sees from afar”, a mythical instrument of omnipotence.
In 2004, Peter Thiel – the billionaire PayPal co-founder, Facebook investor and and latter-day Trump ally – created Palantir alongside Nathan Gettings, Joe Lonsdale, Stephen Cohen and Alex Karp. Their intention was to create a company that took Big Data somewhere no one else dared to go. In 2013, Karp, Palantir’s CEO, announced that the company would not be pursuing an IPO, as going public would make “running a company like ours very difficult”. This is why.
Palantir watches everything you do and predicts what you will do next in order to stop it. As of 2013, its client list included the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, the Centre for Disease Control, the Marine Corps, the Air Force, Special Operations Command, West Point and the IRS. Up to 50% of its business is with the public sector. In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture arm, was an early investor.
Palantir tracks everyone from potential terrorist suspects to corporate fraudsters (Bernie Madoff was imprisoned with the help of Palantir), child traffickers and what they refer to as “subversives”. But it is all done using prediction.
Palantir is at the heart of the US government, but with its other arm, Palantir Metropolis, it provides the analytical tools for hedge funds, banks and financial services firms to outsmart each other.
Yet, Palantir and its owners claim they are all about protecting the rights of the people from government surveillance.
However, The Intercept challenges this claim.
Despite all the grandstanding about lucrative, shadowy government contracts, co-founder Karp does not shy away from taking a stand in the debate over government surveillance. In a Forbes profile in 2013, he played privacy lamb, saying, “I didn’t sign up for the government to know when I smoke a joint or have an affair. … We have to find places that we protect away from government so that we can all be the unique and interesting and, in my case, somewhat deviant people we’d like to be.” In that same article, Thiel lays out Palantir’s mission with privacy in mind: to “reduce terrorism while preserving civil liberties.” After the first wave of revelations spurred by the whistleblower Edward Snowden, Palantir was quick to deny that it had any connection to the NSA spy program known as PRISM, which shared an unfortunate code name with one of its own software products. The current iteration of Palantir’s website includes an entire section dedicated to “Privacy & Civil Liberties,” proclaiming the company’s support of both:
Palantir Technologies is a mission-driven company, and a core component of that mission is protecting our fundamental rights to privacy and civil liberties. …
Some argue that society must “balance” freedom and safety, and that in order to better protect ourselves from those who would do us harm, we have to give up some of our liberties. We believe that this is a false choice in many areas. Particularly in the world of data analysis, liberty does not have to be sacrificed to enhance security. Palantir is constantly looking for ways to protect privacy and individual liberty through its technology while enabling the powerful analysis necessary to generate the actionable intelligence that our law enforcement and intelligence agencies need to fulfill their missions.
It’s hard to square this purported commitment to privacy with proof, garnered from documents provided by Edward Snowden, that Palantir has helped expand and accelerate the NSA’s global spy network, which is jointly administered with allied foreign agencies around the world. Notably, the partnership has included building software specifically to facilitate, augment, and accelerate the use of XKEYSCORE, one of the most expansive and potentially intrusive tools in the NSA’s arsenal. According to Snowden documents published by The Guardian in 2013, XKEYSCORE is by the NSA’s own admission its “widest reaching” program, capturing “nearly everything a typical user does on the internet.” A subsequent report by The Intercept showed that XKEYSCORE’s “collected communications not only include emails, chats, and web-browsing traffic, but also pictures, documents, voice calls, webcam photos, web searches, advertising analytics traffic, social media traffic, botnet traffic, logged keystrokes, computer network exploitation targeting, intercepted username and password pairs, file uploads to online services, Skype sessions, and more.” For the NSA and its global partners, XKEYSCORE makes all of this as searchable as a hotel reservation site.
You may say, “Tim, this is a private company, and you’re for entrepreneurship and capitalism, arent’ you?”
I absolutely am, but this isn’t just a private company. It’s a government-sponsored company that was provided American tax dollars under a CIA venture capital group. That right there should be a conflict of interest, especially considering that government agencies are now using the “products” of Palantir to go after innocent Americans, and yes, the Bundys and several others were acquitted of all the charges against them.
In fact, I learned of Palantir during a conversation I had with reporter Pete Santilli, who had all charges against him concerning the Malheur Wildlife Refuge protests dismissed. Santilli told me he learned about Palantir because of specific information that came out in court of its use.
However, this is not just about Palantir being in bed with the DC government. It is also going to mainstream police departments across the nation.
Wired reported in August 2017:
In one of the largest systematic investigations of the company to date, Backchannel filed dozens of public records requests with police forces across America. When Palantir started selling its products to law enforcement, it also laid a paper trail. All 50 states have public records laws providing access to contracts, documents, and emails of local and government bodies. That makes it possible to peer inside the company’s police-related operations in ways that simply aren’t possible with its national security work.
What’s clear is that law enforcement agencies deploying Palantir have run into a host of problems. Exposing data is just the start. In the documents our requests produced, police departments have also accused the company, backed by tech investor and Trump supporter Peter Thiel, of spiraling prices, hard-to-use software, opaque terms of service, and “failure to deliver products” (in the words of one email from the Long Beach police). Palantir might streamline some criminal investigations—but there’s a possibility that it comes at a high cost, for both the police forces themselves and the communities they serve.
These documents show how Palantir applies Silicon Valley’s playbook to domestic law enforcement. New users are welcomed with discounted hardware and federal grants, sharing their own data in return for access to others’. When enough jurisdictions join Palantir’s interconnected web of police departments, government agencies, and databases, the resulting data trove resembles a pay-to-access social network—a Facebook of crime that’s both invisible and largely unaccountable to the citizens whose behavior it tracks.
This is a very dangerous thing to liberty. If you don’t think so, wait till those posts you’ve been making on the internet are sorted and sifted by Palantir for the government to strike at you.