Palantir has figured out how to make money by using algorithms to ascribe guilt to people, now they're looking for new customers

In 2009, JP Morgan Chase's "special ops" guy was an ex-Secret Service agent called Peter Cavicchia III, and he retained Palantir to spy on everyone in the company to find "insider threats"; even getting the bank to invest in Palantir.

Cavicchia ran his own little security state inside Morgan Stanley, with 120 Palantir staff who worked in an off-limits special floor high above the bank's own security department, invading the bank's employees' privacy without any limits or oversight, all the way up to the most senior level. The bank spent fortunes on this effort -- $3,000/day/engineer! -- and never delivered anything useful. Cavicchia left the bank to work for Palantir, which was then valued at $20B; today, Morgan Stanley values the company at $6B.

Palantir seems to be the kind of company that is always willing to sell magic beans to anyone who puts out an RFP for them. They have promised that with enough surveillance and enough secret, unaccountable parsing of surveillance data, they can find "bad guys" and stop them before they even commit a bad action.

They do a lot of business with police forces in big cities like LA and New Orleans, where, it seems, the algorithm just directs cops to harass random black and brown people. Since the authorities in those cities are accustomed to ignoring claims of overpolicing from black and brown people, it's easy to take Palantir's word for it when they claim they have shown the police which black and brown people's lives should be destroyed. If crime-rates stay high, Palantir just argues they need to spy on people more to get at the really nefarious black and brown people.

But Palantir doesn't want to do labor-intensive, high-cost engagements; they want to do wholesale, mostly automated algorithmic guilt-ascription, and for that, they need to branch out in to destroying the lives of people who don't have to put up with that shit, like bank executives. This poses a real conundrum for them.

Palantir got its start by stealing trade secrets from its largest competitor, eventually paying them millions to settle the case. Now they're the biggest player in their niche.

Peter Theil, Palantir's "libertarian" founder, claims that spying on everyone so Palantir can declare some people guilty is the most freedom-respecting way to run a society, because otherwise you just get the DHS doing this, and something something invisible hand also I am rich as fuck.

He started Palantir—named after the omniscient crystal balls in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy—three years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The CIA’s investment arm, In-Q-Tel, was a seed investor. For the role of chief executive officer, he chose an old law school friend and self-described neo-Marxist, Alex Karp. Thiel told Bloomberg in 2011 that civil libertarians ought to embrace Palantir, because data mining is less repressive than the “crazy abuses and draconian policies” proposed after Sept. 11. The best way to prevent another catastrophic attack without becoming a police state, he argued, was to give the government the best surveillance tools possible, while building in safeguards against their abuse.

Palantir Knows Everything About You [Peter Waldman, Lizette Chapman, and Jordan Robertson/Bloomberg]

(Image: Dan Taylor, CC-BY)