CIA threat-tracking technology is fascinating, creepy

Palantir is security software that helps CIA analysts take innocuous events (man comes to U.S. on temporary visa, man takes flight training classes, man buys one-way ticket from Boston to California) and put them into a context where potential threats can become more apparent (the one man is actually several, and they're all on the same flight).

The technology is based on a system developed by PayPal, and it's interesting because it's one of the few examples of counter-terrorism work that is actually proactive. Instead of adding increasingly elaborate airport security rules that are merely responses to the most recently exposed plot, a program like Palantir has the potential to spot plots in the making with less hassle to the general public. That could make it a good thing. On the other hand, Palantir comes with plenty of its own privacy and civil rights concerns. This Bloomberg BusinessWeek story is pretty "rah rah rah" in tone, ironically cheering on all the things that make Palantir seem rather creepy to me. But it is a great example of why countering terrorism is really just one long string of incredibly difficult choices. What matters more, who makes that call, and how do we balance a reasonable desire for safety with a reasonable desire to not be creeped the hell out by our own government?

In October, a foreign national named Mike Fikri purchased a one-way plane ticket from Cairo to Miami, where he rented a condo. Over the previous few weeks, he’d made a number of large withdrawals from a Russian bank account and placed repeated calls to a few people in Syria. More recently, he rented a truck, drove to Orlando, and visited Walt Disney World by himself. As numerous security videos indicate, he did not frolic at the happiest place on earth. He spent his day taking pictures of crowded plazas and gate areas.

None of Fikri’s individual actions would raise suspicions. Lots of people rent trucks or have relations in Syria, and no doubt there are harmless eccentrics out there fascinated by amusement park infrastructure. Taken together, though, they suggested that Fikri was up to something. And yet, until about four years ago, his pre-attack prep work would have gone unnoticed. A CIA analyst might have flagged the plane ticket purchase; an FBI agent might have seen the bank transfers. But there was nothing to connect the two. Lucky for counterterror agents, not to mention tourists in Orlando, the government now has software made by Palantir Technologies, a Silicon Valley company that’s become the darling of the intelligence and law enforcement communities.

The day Fikri drives to Orlando, he gets a speeding ticket, which triggers an alert in the CIA’s Palantir system. An analyst types Fikri’s name into a search box and up pops a wealth of information pulled from every database at the government’s disposal. There’s fingerprint and DNA evidence for Fikri gathered by a CIA operative in Cairo; video of him going to an ATM in Miami; shots of his rental truck’s license plate at a tollbooth; phone records; and a map pinpointing his movements across the globe. All this information is then displayed on a clearly designed graphical interface that looks like something Tom Cruise would use in a Mission: Impossible movie.

As the CIA analyst starts poking around on Fikri’s file inside of Palantir, a story emerges. A mouse click shows that Fikri has wired money to the people he had been calling in Syria. Another click brings up CIA field reports on the Syrians and reveals they have been under investigation for suspicious behavior and meeting together every day over the past two weeks. Click: The Syrians bought plane tickets to Miami one day after receiving the money from Fikri. To aid even the dullest analyst, the software brings up a map that has a pulsing red light tracing the flow of money from Cairo and Syria to Fikri’s Miami condo. That provides local cops with the last piece of information they need to move in on their prey before he strikes.

Fikri isn’t real—he’s the John Doe example Palantir uses in product demonstrations that lay out such hypothetical examples. The demos let the company show off its technology without revealing the sensitive work of its clients.

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