Peter Thiel’s CIA-backed, data-mining firm honed its ‘crime predicting’ techniques against insurgents in Iraq. The same methods are now being sold to police departments. Will they inflame already tense relations between the public and the police?
In Minority Report, the 2002 movie adaptation of the Philip K Dick novel, Tom Cruise plays a police officer in the LAPD “pre-crime” unit. Using the premonitions of sentient mutants called “pre-cogs”, the police are able to predict when someone is going to commit a crime before it happens, swooping down from helicopters and arresting them on the street before they can do anything. Their “crime” is that they merely thought about it.
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.
In Iraq, the Pentagon used Palantir software to track patterns in roadside bomb deployment and worked out garage-door openers were being used as remote detonators by predicting it.
Palantir allowed the marines to upload DNA samples from remote locations and tap into information gathered from years of collecting fingerprints and DNA evidence, the results returned almost immediately.
Without Palantir, suspects would have already moved on to a different location by the time the field agents received the results. Using the most sophisticated data mining, Palantir can predict the future, seconds or years before it happens. Samuel Reading – a former marine who has worked in Afghanistan for NEK Advanced Securities Group, a US military contractor – has said: “It’s the combination of every analytical tool you could ever dream of. You will know every single bad guy in your area.”
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.
Palantir does not just provide the Pentagon with a machine for global surveillance and the data-efficient fighting of war, it runs Wall Street, too. Palantir is exactly what it says it is: a giant digital eye like Saruman’s seeing stone in The Lord of the Rings.