Palantir, the President, and Privacy

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

March 6, 2017

An article in The Intercept discusses the growing power of the spy community, and how it may become even worse under President Trump. This, the author posits, is likely because of Trump’s kinship with Silicon Valley mogul and supporter Peter Thiel. The news portal and author Sam Biddle’s undisguised disdain for, and bias against, Trump, has to be considered when weighing the merits of the case he makes.

One also has to look closely at Biddle’s objectivity, given his ire at a lawsuit Thiel pursued against Biddle’s former employer, and his characterizing of Thiel (an intelligent and successful entrepreneur), as merely the “token” non-liberal on Facebook’s board. This prejudice detracts from, but does not dismiss, Biddle’s overarching argument about the dangers of spying to the republic, and indeed the world, represented in a marriage of Thiel, Trump, and Palantir.

He makes some interesting points, and raises some intriguing questions. However, before getting to the essence of his premises, the author makes the mistake of twisting facts to suit his own take on them, and then crying conspiracy. In the end, he (accidentally?) makes quite a compelling argument for why Thiel’s Palantir is so prolific and well-positioned in the global spying/surveillance game.

Yes, Peter Thiel is a tech titan, and yes, he supported Donald Trump’s candidacy from the outset. Plus it’s true that his company, Palantir, has been eager to do business with the government – as if no other Silicon Valley firm isn’t! And yes, the company is involved in technology that aids and abets spying. Can’t think of any other tech companies that are so engaged! Can you?

This would not even be an issue for The Intercept or Mr Biddle, in my opinion, if a liberal-leaning Democrat had won the presidency and occupied the Oval Office. Nonetheless, the matter is worth delving into deeper – my caveats notwithstanding. So why all the hue and cry over Thiel, Trump and Palantir Technologies? And why now? Let’s look deeper.

Palantir Technologies, which Thiel founded with Alex Karp and Joe Lonsdale in 2004, has been working for years to sift and exploit information of any kind, and thus enhance the spying capabilities of the NSA and its ilk. Now, with the private sector-promoting partisan Trump at the reins, Thiel’s profile has been raised, and his prospects improved for doing even more business around the world, as well as, increasingly, with the new administration. A little background may be helpful here.

The CIA was an early investor in the startup, through its venture capital branch, In-Q-Tel. The CIA connection is enough to raise antennae, but this is no longer front-page news. Also, Palantir has demurred discussing, or even naming, its government clientele, despite landing “at least $1.2 billion” in federal contracts since 2009, according to Politico. However, it claims to be no toady for the government. Indeed, under Obama it wasn’t!

In fact, the co-founder argued that it is not in bed with the spy apparatus, nor in favor of its odious surveillance practices. Thiel stated that Palantir’s mission is to “reduce terrorism while preserving civil liberties.” This lofty rhetoric is echoed by Karp, who also pushes back against untoward government involvement, opining a few years ago that,

“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.”

This may be all well and good, but it doesn’t pass the smell test. Nor does it explain why the capabilities of Palantir Gotham (formerly Palantir Government) are designed for the needs of intelligence, law enforcement, and homeland security customers. Gotham works by importing large reams of data (like spreadsheets) and other data (like images) into one centralized database. There, all of the information can be visualized and analyzed in one workspace.

It is large enough, powerful enough, and flexible enough to be a workhorse in projects ranging from monitoring arms flow in a particular region, to pinpointing terrorist training camps. Sure looks like an ideal government surveillance platform to me! And it is a system for which demand may well grow as the world becomes more dangerous.

Adding fuel to the fire is Edward Snowden’s disclosure that Palantir helped expand and accelerate the NSA’s global spy network (an assertion that Palantir’s brain-trust denies). Snowden also alleges that Palantir was complicit in helping develop a program labeled XKEYSCORE, an extremely intrusive tool in the NSA toolbox that is regarded by the NSA’s own admission as being its “widest reaching” program, capturing “nearly everything a typical user does on the internet.”

The Intercept article goes on in depth to chronicle Palantir’s involvement with other countries’ spying apparatuses, such as the UK’s GCHQ. It contends that at least three members of the “Five Eyes” spy alliance between the US, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada have utilized Palantir to help gather and process data from around the world.

In this vein, the “Five Eyes” countries shared enormous amounts of data and metadata collected through tools such as XKEYSCORE. This ultimately amounted to tens of billions of records.

This article goes on to comprehensively catalog the many tentacles of Palantir, but also, curiously at the same time, highlights the apparent efficacy of its systems. It is breathtaking to note just how critical and entrenched it is in many of the government surveillance arsenals around the world, and has been, especially in the US, since about 2008. It leads one (well, me) to think that the author’s opening salvo is “all hat and no cattle” or a “tempest in a teapot.”

From the outset, it would seem from the language used as though Plantir is a startup needing to get its foot in the door, and that Thiel’s support for Trump was simply to curry favor, so that an embryonic firm could get a leg-up. However, this is an established, sophisticated operation, with a long history of government agency involvement.

Making the case that a potential Thiel-Trump partnership bodes ill for privacy is another story. Suggesting that, under a Trump presidency, privacy will not only get the same short shrift it did under Obama, is also a plausible argument. You can even intimate that surveillance may get worse with Donald in the Oval Office. However, to suggest that a new chapter is beginning in the long history of surveillance and spying because Thiel is cosy with the new president is a reach, to say the least.

Some news outlets are trying to connect the acknowledgment of some recent defections from Palantir, such as by Home Depot, to conclude that, because of Thiel’s advisory role in the nascent administration, his business will now be reclaimed from the scrap-heap. Nothing could be further from the truth.

If Palantir does get some additional government contracts due to the Thiel’s association with the president, I don’t see the problem. This is the way things have worked in politics for centuries. I mean, you don’t think that Eric Schmidt and Google didn’t benefit from being joined at the hip to Obama?

Too bad a potentially good article will be tarred as simply another liberal “hit piece,” and the larger message obscured. That is, that privacy continues to take it on the chin, regardless of who is in office. Where was the scrutiny during the eight years of Obama?

Editor’s note: as always, Stan’s articles are very much his own, and should not be seen as reflecting the views of other staff members.

Image credit: Dan Taylor, Peter Thiel by Dan Taylor, CC BY 2.0
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