The allegations earlier this year that the now-defunct data firm Cambridge Analytica improperly gathered information on 87 million Facebook users set off a firestorm. But another powerful data company has largely escaped public scrutiny.
Palantir, founded in 2004 by libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel, got its start aggregating massive amounts of information for the CIA's efforts in the war on terror. Today, it works with clients in both the public and private sector, and its capabilities are growing.
"It provides a certain level of omniscience," Waldman says of Palantir. "It's an analytical platform, and it stitches these things together in ways that human analysts wouldn't and couldn't do."
On how the company works
"Palantir is a Silicon Valley startup. It began in 2004. It does heavy-duty data mining. Basically it connects far-flung data points from different places, different databases, depending on what its client needs or wants. And I guess what makes it different is that it can really see things and connect things and spin out analytical — we call them 'spidergrams,' graphical depictions of how data points connect. So it can connect you with your car, with your cellphone, with your aunt, with your friend, with a crime you may have committed, with a bank balance you may have. It's quite good at bringing far-flung things together."
On how Palantir is being used
"I think probably the most controversial use is in law enforcement, and specifically at the local level with police and sheriffs offices. Or let's say the Los Angeles Police Department, for example, which uses Palantir quite intensively. They use it for something called their 'Laser' program, which is a pre-crime analytic program that essentially tries to identify people likely to commit crimes. These are chronic offenders, and Palantir is very good at stitching together databases that spin out a list of these people for patrolmen on the streets to watch and pull over for bad taillights or jaywalking, and keep an eye on them. And it can get a little spooky from there."
On what happens when Palantir gets it wrong
"There is no algorithm for redemption, really. I mean, in this case, you can't go to Palantir or the police department and say, 'The data is just plain wrong. You have the wrong person.' So we write about a person in East Los Angeles who did grow up and spends a lot of time with members of a gang there, but swears that he is not a gang member himself. But he's been continuously harassed because he was in a car one time when the cops pulled up. He was sitting with a friend who was in a gang, and the cops came back and shot a photograph of this young man sitting in the cars, and literally said to him, 'Welcome to the gang database.' And since then, he's been harassed, pulled over, stopped, thrown up against a wall, multiple times. Cops will take notes, ask questions, see what he'll tell them about neighbors and other people around there. And he protests he's not part of the gang. But it doesn't seem to register."
"It can connect you with your car, with your cellphone, with your aunt, with your friend, with a crime you may have committed, with a bank balance you may have."Peter Waldman
On the analytical power of the platform
"I'll give you an example, and you can tell me if you find it creepy or not. But there was a woman associated with several members in a community in Los Angeles that the police was watching. And we think through license plate readers, but possibly other means the police, in their inputting of data into the various systems, essentially was able to figure out, using Palantir, that three different members of this group of people they were watching had parked at her house overnight on different nights, in a small space of time. And they deduced from that that this woman was sleeping with three people they were watching at the same time, or in the same period of time, I should say. And that's a piece of information that this woman — by the way, who is not suspected of any crime or any even gang membership — you know, a piece of information that the state probably shouldn't have. At least some people wouldn't think it should have, or the cops in this case. It allows them to muscle her and say, 'Hey, we know you're sleeping with these three guys. You've got to become an informant, or we're going to put a listening device in your house when they come over, or you're going to ask them these questions.' So it just provides for connections that maybe people shouldn't have. And there have been some Supreme Court cases with other recent technologies that really bear out this fear.
On Palantir's history
"Peter Thiel is the founder. He is a well-known venture investor out here, got his start as a founder of PayPal and a board member and investor in Facebook. He founded the company in 2004, essentially taking algorithmic conventions and software that they used at PayPal, to try to predict who would be a fraudulent user of PayPal, and apply it to the security realm. And they took this platform to the three-letter agencies in Washington — CIA, NSA, FBI, etc. — and said, 'Hey, we have a great tool for figuring out who may be a terrorist.' Or taking it overseas to Iraq and Afghanistan where it was widely used. And commandos and others who we interviewed commended it, said it was far better than anything the Pentagon or CIA had previously. You know, was used to sort of track, let's say, where high danger points might be on a road for incendiary devices, or it was used in the hunt for Osama bin Laden."
On why you may have never heard of it
"It tries to fly under the radar. I mean, let's face it: It is a three-letter contractor. You know, the NSA and CIA and others are not thrilled to get publicity.
"I think in terms of law enforcement, there is a very conscious effort to keep it out of court. So what I mean by that is, when defense lawyers are receiving the discovery and all the evidence that prosecutors have on their clients, they don't cite Palantir as a source or a tool used in an investigation very consciously. Because, as I alluded to before, the Supreme Court has had serious issues with technologies like Palantir. So I think that it, very purposefully, does its best to stay out of court cases and criminal prosecutions, even though police and sheriffs and others are using it quite widely."
This segment aired on May 22, 2018.
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