Analysis: Are Palantir spooks?

The Greens says Palantir - the US software company that maintains a Wellington office, is pretty much a spook outfit.

Co-leader Russel Norman asks whether our our government has outsourced the analysis of confidential data to Panlantir.

And on Tuesday Norman zinged off this tweet, sparking a Twitter war with Rod Drury:

Many in the tech community would have shared Mr Drury's annoyance that Norman was having a ding at Peter Thiel, the Californian entrepreneur who has invested millions in local startups, and often boosted New Zealand as a centre of innovation.

But at the same time, the evidence seems pretty clear that Palantir has tight ties to the intelligence community. And Prime Minister John Key's refusal to comment on any "operational matters", and Palantir's reticence on the point, leaves the question open of what the software company's Wellington office actually does. (Mr Key has acknowledged he's met with Peter Thiel several times, but that's barely surprising given the entrepreneur has put $15 million toward the Crown-backed NZVIF fund, among other local investments.)

Mr Thiel made his fortune by cofounding then selling Paypal, and his early investment in Facebook. Forbes estimates his wealth at $US1.6 billion

According to a 2009 Wall Street Journal article on Palantir (How a Team of Geeks Cracked Spy Trade), In 2003, Thiel pitched an idea to fellow entrepreneur Aleandar Karp: Could they build software that would uncover terror networks using the approach PayPal had devised to fight Russian cybercriminals?.

In 2004, the pair cofounded Palantir.

Thiel reportedly chipping in most of the $US30 million startup capital. The Wall Street Journal article says the CIA's venture capital fund, In-Q-tel, also put in $US2 million, the Wall Street Journal says.

A veteran intelligence writer, the Washington DC-based Tim Shorrock, points out to NBR ONLINE the investment is no secret - Palantir is listed on the CIA fund's website.

The 2009 Journal article also notes the NSA is "eyeing" Palantir (for more on that theme, see Mr Shorrock's June 6 story, Who’s helping the NSA? A Look at Palantir).

ABOVE: Palantir co-founder Alexander Karp in a November 2011 interview with Bloomberg. "We built a data integration platform," he says. "You can think of Google as structuring all the world's public information. In most of our environment we're structuring the world's private information." See also Bloomberg's Palantir, the War on Terror's Secret Weapon.

Today, it seems Palantir is doing pretty well, with its private equity value put at anywhere from $US2.5 billion to four times that (see the January 2013 Wall Street Journal article, A Palantir Founder Suggests His Startup Is Worth About $8 Billion).

But what is it doing?

As the scandal first broke about the NSA using Prism for mass surveillance of email, txt and calls, it first looked like a dumb mistake that Palantir was implicated at all. 

The company said it was a simple coincidence that its data mining software shared the same name as the system used by the NSA.

Matt Long, a member of Palantir’s inhouse legal team, told NBR ONLINE earlier this week, “Palantir's Prism platform is completely unrelated to any US government program of the same name. Prism is Palantir's name for a data integration technology used in the Palantir Metropolis platform, formerly branded as Palantir Finance. This software has been licensed to banks and hedge funds for quantitative analysis and research.”

Dr Norman tells NBR the Prism name confusion was old news.

The Greens co-leader says he accepts Palantir’s Prism software is not the same thing as the NSA’s Prism programme – but that Palantir’s technology could be being used to create a New Zealand version of the NSA’s Prism. “New Zealander’s have a right to know if Palantir has been hired to spy on them,” he says (Dr Norman has also raised the related issue of whether NSA Prism data has been supplied to NZ security agencies).

Mr Shorrock tells NBR it “doesn't sound feasible” that Palantir is replicating the NSA’s Prism system, but that Peter Thiel's company is likely doing analysis of data collected by the NSA’s Prism (Palantir’s Prism software is used for sifting through data to, for example, match credit card purchase data to GPS location data; the NSA’s Prism system both collects data, and analyses it).

"I'm 99% sure they do link analysis and map out 'illicit networks' for the NSA," Mr Shorrock says of Panatir, "Possibly for the data they get from Prism."

Knew nothing
NBR asked a followup question to the Californian company, “Is Palantir is doing work for any NZ security agency, either in terms of assisting with intelligence gathering or intelligence analysis in any capacity?”

A second Palantir rep, media and government relations manager Lisa Gordon, responded with the tangential, “We knew nothing about this program [the NSA’s Prism] until the story broke last week.”

A follow up question on whether Palantir’s Wellington office was involved in analysis of data collected by the NSA went unanswered, as did a question on the identity of local clients in banking and finance.

Dr Norman told NBR it was obvious Palantir’s technology was used for intelligence gathering, pointing to the fact the CIA was a founding investor.

“What it looks like is John Key is trying to develop his own domestic Prism system so that he can spy on everything all of us do all of the time when we’re online,” Dr Norman says.

Until Palantir can provide some detail on mainstream commercial business carried out by its Wellngton office, or the PM confirms or denies Palantir is crunching data for the GCSB, Dr Norman will continue to dine out.

ckeall@nbr.co.nz

MORE

Rod Drury, Russel Norman go at it on Twitter over Palantir

Tech company denials genuine, but Prism still accessing their servers – security expert

Interception Bill could harm Internet economy – InternetNZ

How I learned to stop worrying and love Prism

Yahoo Supplied Data to PRISM Only After Losing Scrappy FISA Fight (Wired) 

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