Palantir's technology was developed in warzones like Fallujah, where it was used to anticipate roadside bombs and attacks by insurgents. Now, it's being used on the streets of Los Angeles to root out criminals like something straight out of the movie "Minority Report."
Unsurprisingly, the privately-held tech firm is backed by the CIA's venture-capital arm. Now, the company has gathered massive amounts of data on the American populace, which it farms out to police departments, who use it to track down criminals before they strike.
But the company's technology isn't only used to track down common street thugs. It's also used to track and anticipate the crimes of white collar fraudsters like Bernie Madoff.
Little is known about the company, which, unlike most tech startups, has no plans to go public. In 2013, CEO Alex Karp, Palantir’s CEO, explained that "running a company like ours would be very difficult" if it was exposed to the scrutiny that comes with being a public company.
In other words, if the public became aware of what Palantir is doing, the backlash might dwarf the data privacy scandals that have roiled Silicon Valley in recent years.
Tom Cruise in the film 'Minority Report'
As of 2013, Palantir's client list includes the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, the CDC, the Marine Corps, the Air Force, Special Operations Command, West Point and the IRS. Roughly half of the company's business is with the government. Q-Tel, the CIA's VC arm, was one of the company's earliest investors. The company, which doesn't have an office, uses blockchain technology to protect its tools from sophisticated hackers.
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."
Here's more from a Guardian report about the company:
Military-grade surveillance technology has now migrated from Fallujah to the suburban neighbourhoods of LA. Predictive policing is being used on illegal drivers and petty criminals through a redeployment of techniques and algorithms used by the US army dealing with insurgents in Iraq and with civilian casualty patterns.
When the US is described as a "war zone" between police and young black males, it is rarely mentioned that tactics developed by the US military in a real war zone are actually being deployed. Is predictive policing as a counter-insurgency tactic a contributing factor in the epidemic of police shootings of unarmed black men in the past four years?
One could argue that sophisticated pre-crime algorithms are not necessary when being black and male is seen as reason enough for the police to swoop. What predictive policing has done is militarise American cities, creating a heightened culture of suspicion and fear in areas where tensions are highest and policing is already most difficult. Officers being led to certain neighbourhoods solely because of an algorithm is enough to cause tension; enough to ignite a powder keg and push a delicate policing situation over the edge.
Ana Muniz is an activist and researcher who works with the Inglewood-based Youth Justice Coalition. "Any time that a society’s military and domestic police become more similar, the lines blur," she told LA Weekly. "The military is supposed to defend the territory from external enemies, that’s not the mission of the police – they’re not supposed to look at the population as an external enemy."
As the paper explains, the company offers a glimpse of the dystopian, totalitarian future that is gradually becoming a reality in China. Its capabilities to run 'special ops' using big-data tools shows how it has more power than Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon combined.
In 2010, the LAPD announced a partnership with Motorola Solutions to monitor the Jordan Downs public housing project with surveillance cameras. In 2013, they announced the deployment of live CCTV cameras with facial-recognition software in San Fernando Valley, reported to be programmed to ID suspects on a "hot list."
Data merely becomes a new way of reinforcing old prejudices. Critics of these analytics argue that from the moment a police officer with the pre-crime mindset that you are a criminal steps out of their patrol car to confront you, your fate has been sealed.
In 2013, TechCrunch obtained a leaked report on the use of Palantir by the LA and Chicago police departments. Sgt Peter Jackson of the LAPD was quoted as saying: "Detectives love the type of information [Palantir] provides. They can now do things that we could not do before."
Palantir is immensely secretive. It wields as much real-world power as Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple, but unlike them, Palantir operates so far under the radar, it is special ops.
Palantir's name was lifted from JRR Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings' series, where a Palantir is a 'seeing stone' used by the evil wizard Saruman. Palantir means "one that sees from afar." Its software allows the firm's clients to be virtually omnipotent, meaning that some day, it could be used to prevent mass shootings before they happen.
But it also means that soon, 'thought crimes' might become real, enforceable offenses.