Palantir: An uncanny company?

Who uses Palantir software?

According to a letter to the investors that was made public in 2015 almost all departments of state in the US use Palantir software already in some way or the other [8]. This includes the NSA, the CIA, the FBI, the Air Force and many more. But that’s not all. One of Palantir’s main products fittingly called ‘Gotham’ is being used in more and more European departments. Even in Germany the company is working with local police forces like in Hesse to help with criminal investigations in cases of acts of violence endangering the state [5]. A similar program is also planned for North Rhine-Westphalia.

Many private companies in Germany don’t have hesitations to work with Palantir either. The CEO of Telekom recently met with the Palantir management although the subject of the meeting is unknown. Europe’s biggest software company SAP was working with them until recently when Palantir terminated the contract [8].

For the duration of the corona crisis Palantir provided some of its software for free to governments and health care agencies. The US, Great-Britain and Greece took the offer. The program called ‘Foundry’ is able to evaluate big data sets to prematurely recognize trends and developments. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the US used this to anticipate the utilization of hospital beds, ventilators and other medical supplies as well as the amount of patients and necessary medical personnel [5]. Studies showed that Palantir likes to attract customers with a cheap starting price while maintenance, extensions and training courses are very expensive [5].

In Hesse the implementation of the Foundry software was also planned but decreasing infection rates led to it being no longer necessary. Günter Rudolph of the SPD said it would have been better for the local government to realize that a collaboration with a company that is so closely tied to the CIA should be out of the question [5]. However, a growing number of companies and departments of state all over Europe seem to be unperturbed by this fact.

The moral dilemma

Gotham works by collecting and transforming different types of data in a collective data element and putting these data elements in a relation to each other [6]. This can for example help visualize relationships between people that might be a threat to national security. In Hesse at least one Islamic terror attack and multiple heavy crimes were already prevented that way the German Federal Ministry of the Interior has said [5].

The moral problem lies in the word ‘might’. Systems like this naturally also target and violate the privacy of innocent people. Recent decisions by the German government show that this ‘moral dilemma’ isn’t seen as a big concern by many (see [4], [3]). The decision to expand the ability of the police and state security to install viruses on people’s phones and laptops and the introduction of data retention laws for internet providers show that national security is still prioritized over individual privacy in Germany.

In the US Palantir went into hot water for helping the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) find and deport illegal immigrants. In 2014 they built a system creating digital profiles of people suspected of violating immigration laws. Suspectedly thousands of illegal immigrants have been deported that way [2]. What followed were big protests by activist groups and even many Palantir employees.

The CEO Alex Karp wasn’t swayed by the opposing voices. He renewed his contract with the ICE and issued a statement at a company conference where he reiterates his company’s support for the government [5].

“We started this contract under Obama, and obviously there’s a lot of legitimate concern about what happens on our border, how it happens, and what does the enforcement look like? … It’s a legitimate, complex issue. My personal position is we acknowledge the complexity. The people protesting, whom I respect, should also acknowledge that complexity.”

Alex Karp, 2019 [9]