Global surveillance industry gets a new toy


Looking at the state you’re in.  Palantir’s surveillance technology is wide-reaching.

When the government told the people of London that the eyes of the world would be on it during the Olympic Games, it failed to mention one particularly powerful watcher; a new software programme used for tracking potential troublemakers.

In the September edition of Wired Magazine, Shane Harris reports on the new American software company Palantir Technologies, new over here in the UK just in time for the Olympics.

Palantir has already won over intelligence agencies on both side of the Atlantic Ocean with its ability to assemble mountains of information and data for use in a cornucopia of causes.

‘The contradiction that we wanted to remove was between civil liberties and fighting terrorism,’ a Palantir co-founder said of his creation.

And what a creation it is.  The software processes large quantities of information from an almost endless range of data, including surveillance images, drone footage, electronic communications and health records.

The CIA, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security are but a few of the software’s biggest fans. In the USA at least, Palantir is being touted as a powerful tool in tackling scourges from terrestrial terrorism, drug trafficking and cyber hacking.

While not certain, Wired’s Harris also suggests that UK’s MI6, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and domestic security organisations are also users.

Related articles: the Bureau’s analysis of the global surveillance industry

Beyond the shady sunglasses professions, Palantir is used by corporations such as banking giant JPMorgan Chase and has helped gather victims’ names in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake.  It has even assisted detailed investigative journalism projects, such as last month’s series on human tissue trafficking by the International Consoritum of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

Prodigal financial adviser Alex Karp and PayPal founder Peter Thiel were behind the idea. The duo worked with a coterie of Stanford tech-heads and together dreamed of Silicon Valley’s best brains uniting in a start-up for large organisations.

Launched in 2004, Palantir received early financial backing from In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s technology investment branch. Contemporary estimates put Palantir’s worth at £2.5 bn.

Palantir UK is currently seeking to hire four new staff for its Covent Garden office in London. According to the online advertisements, each role requires the successful candidate to ‘loath the bureaucracy’ and ‘have a deeply held belief that a revolution in intelligence affairs is not only possible, it is imminent.’

An obsession for JRR Tolkein may be an additional criterion; a ‘palantir’ is a crystal ball-like stone appearing in Tolkein’s lore and the company’s London office is named after an elvish town.

Despite Palantir’s praiseworthy track record so far, Wired’s Shane Harris reminds us that the software’s power is likely to lie in the hands of its user.

In 2010, an adviser to Bank of America approached Palantir to help bring down WikiLeaks. While Palantir never approved the collaboration, emails from the adviser detail his desire to target Julian Assange’s company, use the software to help launch cyberattacks on WikiLeaks and close the net around WikiLeaks’ sources by obtaining data on who submits leaks and from where.

When hacking group Anoymous revealed the emails, Palantir stopped discussions dead in their tracks and took legal advice. Senior Palantir officers, such as Karp, claim to have had no knowledge of the discussions.

Related article: The Bureau and WikiLeaks’ Iraq war logs

There seems little doubt that Palantir in certain uses has already been a powerful force for good.

But with one enthusiastic Palantir employee on the record for having written to colleagues, “Damn it feels good to be a gansta,” there may be room for wariness.

Joining the Dots, by Shane Harris, is in the September issue of Wired.