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Palantir – The War On Terror’s Secret Weapon?

From the November 2011 archives of Businessweek:

Palantir, the War on Terror’s Secret Weapon

By Ashlee Vance and Brad Stone on November 22, 2011

… Since its founding in 2004, the company [Palantir] has quietly developed an indispensable tool employed by the U.S. intelligence community in the war on terrorism. Palantir technology essentially solves the Sept. 11 intelligence problem. The Digital Revolution dumped oceans of data on the law enforcement establishment but provided feeble ways to make sense of it. In the months leading up to the 2001 attacks, the government had all the necessary clues to stop the al Qaeda perpetrators…

An organization like the CIA or FBI can have thousands of different databases, each with its own quirks: financial records, DNA samples, sound samples, video clips, maps, floor plans, human intelligence reports from all over the world. Gluing all that into a coherent whole can take years…. What Palantir does, says Avivah Litan, an analyst at Gartner (IT), is “make it really easy to mine these big data sets.” The company’s software pulls off one of the great computer science feats of the era: It combs through all available databases, identifying related pieces of information, and puts everything together in one place…

Palantir has built a customer list that includes the U.S. Defense Dept., CIA, FBI, Army, Marines, Air Force, the police departments of New York and Los Angeles, and a growing number of financial institutions trying to detect bank fraud. These deals have turned the company into one of the quietest success stories in Silicon Valley—it’s on track to hit $250 million in sales this year—and a candidate for an initial public offering. Palantir has been used to find suspects in a case involving the murder of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement special agent, and to uncover bombing networks in Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan

But it hasn’t caught the Benghazi attackers. Or tracked what happened in ‘Fast & Furious.’

The origins of Palantir go back to PayPal, the online payments pioneer founded in 1998. A hit with consumers and businesses, PayPal also attracted criminals who used the service for money laundering and fraud. By 2000, PayPal looked like “it was just going to go out of business” because of the cost of keeping up with the bad guys, says Peter Thiel, a PayPal co-founder…

PayPal’s computer scientists set to work building a software system that would treat each transaction as part of a pattern rather than just an entry in a database. They devised ways to get information about a person’s computer, the other people he did business with, and how all this fit into the history of transactions. These techniques let human analysts see networks of suspicious accounts and pick up on patterns missed by the computers. PayPal could start freezing dodgy payments before they were processed…

Thiel, Lonsdale, and a couple of former colleagues officially incorporated Palantir in 2004…

Overlooked by the moneyed institutions on Sand Hill Road, Thiel put up the original funds before enticing In-Q-Tel, the investment arm of the CIA, to invest as well…

Most of Palantir’s government work remains classified, but information on some cases has trickled out. In April 2010, security researchers in Canada used Palantir’s software to crack a spy operation dubbed Shadow Network that had, among other things, broken into the Indian Defense Ministry and infiltrated the Dalai Lama’s e-mail account.

Palantir has also been used to unravel child abuse and abduction cases. Palantir “gives us the ability to do the kind of link-and-pattern analysis we need to build cases, identify perpetrators, and rescue children,” says Ernie Allen, CEO of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The software recently helped NCMEC analysts link an attempted abduction with previous reports of the suspect to the center’s separate cyber-tip line—and plot that activity on a map. “We did it within 30 seconds,” Allen says. “It is absolutely a godsend for us.” …

Child abuse cases involving Americans.

One of the world’s largest banks has used Palantir software to break up a popular scam called BustOut. Criminals will steal or purchase access to thousands of people’s online identities, break into their bank and credit-card accounts, then spend weeks watching. Once they spot a potential victim purchasing a plane ticket or heading out on a holiday, they siphon money out of the accounts as fast as they can while the mark is in transit. The criminals hide their trails by anonymizing their computing activity and disabling alert systems in the bank and credit-card accounts. When the bank picks up on a few compromised accounts, it uses Palantir to uncover the network of thousands of other accounts that have to be tapped…

Using Palantir technology, the FBI can now instantly compile thorough dossiers on U.S. citizens, tying together surveillance video outside a drugstore with credit-card transactions, cell-phone call records, e-mails, airplane travel records, and Web search information

So why couldn’t they identify the Boston Bombers?

Christopher Soghoian, a graduate fellow at the Center for Applied Cybersecurity in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University, worries that Palantir will make these agencies ever hungrier consumers of every piece of personal data. “I don’t think Palantir the firm is evil,” he says. “I think their clients could be using it for evil things.”

Or an administration.

Thiel, who sits on the board and is an avowed libertarian, says civil liberties advocates should welcome Palantir. “We cannot afford to have another 9/11 event in the U.S. or anything bigger than that,” he says. “That day opened the doors to all sorts of crazy abuses and draconian policies.” In his view, the best way to avoid such scenarios in the future would be to provide the government the most cutting-edge technology possible and build in policing systems to make sure investigators use it lawfully.

Somehow we are not re-assured.

After Washington and Wall Street, Karp says the company may turn its attention to health care, retail, insurance, and biotech. The thinking is that Palantir’s technology can illuminate health insurance scams just as well as it might be able to trace the origin of a virus outbreak…

Oh joy! It will be overseeing Obama-Care along with the IRS.

This article was posted by Steve Gilbert on Monday, June 10th, 2013. Comments are currently closed.

3 Responses to “Palantir – The War On Terror’s Secret Weapon?”

  1. Enthalpy

    If you are unwilling to call a dedicated, proven enemy “enemy” what diffference does it make? Now more than ever we need to be watching the watchers.

  2. All well and good until a real farking tyrant gets hold of the dials, levers and switches of technology such as this.


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