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Wed 12 August 2020
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Sam Bright tracks the global expansion of data mining company Palantir during the Coronavirus pandemic

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In the world of big tech, Palantir is a data giant. The US company, established in the wake of 9/11 with the help of a $2 million CIA incubator, is now valued at $20 billion and is getting ready for a public stock offering.

The vast majority of people won’t be aware of Palantir, yet its engineers and consultants are embedded in governments around the world, hastened by the Coronavirus pandemic.

The standard analysis – repeated in newsrooms from the Economist to the Guardian – is that COVID-19 has reversed the relentless march of globalisation. To a degree, this is true. A border-less world can’t control a pandemic and so the protective boundaries of nation states have been reasserted to tackle this deadly disease.

However, in the sphere of big data and technology, the pace of globalisation has in fact quickened. As governments scramble to crush the Coronavirus and companies figure out how to trade internationally without getting on a plane, or even out of bed, border-less technologies are in demand.

Palantir is benefitting from this great tech rush.

NBC News claims that the company is assisting more than a dozen countries with their Coronavirus responses – including the UK, the United States, Greece, Austria, Spain and Canada – alongside a number of private companies and charities. The United Nations World Food Programme, for example, is using Palantir’s software to help track its aid packages.

Palantir specialises in compiling data: pulling together information from various sources to improve the ability of officials – in theory – to make quick, accurate decisions. According to the Government, its software enables “disparate data to be integrated, cleaned, and harmonised in order to develop the single source of truth that will support decision-making”.

Palantir has been awarded a £1 million four-month contract by the Government to handle Coronavirus data provided by the NHS, though agreed to conduct its initial work for just £1. This was not so much an act of generosity than a way to leverage for future work – a free trial that Palantir hopes will become a paying subscription from the NHS, even after the Coronavirus has been buried.

In June 2019, Forbes reported that Palantir employs more people in London than in Silicon Valley. With deals worth more than $39 million agreed with the Government, it seems that the British state is playing a large hand in the firm’s European expansion.

However, Palantir isn’t exactly scaling back in its native US. In April, Palantir was awarded two federal contracts worth $24.9 million to build a Coronavirus tracking system called HHS Protect.

It is now a global health and data agency; an international body vital to the operation of governments across the world. Yet, quite uniquely, Palantir is owned by shareholders rather than the public and is controlled by CEOs instead of politicians and civil servants.

The pandemic has swept through the world with such ferocity and speed that it poses an ideal situation for tech firms such as Palantir. The now-infamous founding motto of Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg was “move fast and break things” – and the present lawless bare-knuckle-fight with the Coronavirus actively enables this destructive innovation.

As has been reported by Byline Times, the Government has been awarding huge, multi-million-pound contracts to private companies without competition or scrutiny. Ironically, given its Brexit fanaticism, this unchecked spending splurge has been facilitated by a European law allowing the abandonment of normal procurement rules during an “emergency”.

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Palantir’s initial Coronavirus work in the UK was one of the contracts that avoided competitive tender, as this newspaper revealed.

There seems to be little to keep the tech titans in check and to simultaneously protect citizens across the world from rogue innovation. This is especially concerning in the case of Palantir – a company that has not been afraid to align itself with overtly political causes.


TRUMP’S APPRENTICES

Palantir has been fuelled by external crises. Set up in 2003 during the George W. Bush-era ‘War on Terror’, it promised that better data systems could be used to stop future terrorist attacks.

This idea was sold to the CIA and counter-terrorism has become a core element of Palantir’s work ever since, with reports that company’s software was even used to track down Osama bin Laden.

The firm offers its clients the ability to understand large amounts of data. This can help health services desperate to find patterns in a rapidly unfolding pandemic, while similarly providing insights for crime agencies looking to track down felons. It is the latter that has caused controversy both inside and outside of Palantir in recent years.

In 2014, it was awarded a $41 million contract by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to build and maintain a new intelligence system to help officials to identify and deport undocumented immigrants. The system collates data from multiple federal and private law enforcement agencies, each of which might have fragments of data on these individuals.

The case of Palantir is a political and ethical dilemma the world currently isn’t equipped to deal with.

Since entering the White House, Donald Trump has launched an almost personal vendetta against undocumented immigrants – people he refers to as “illegal aliens” – and has relied on Palantir’s software to clamp down on America’s migrant population.

As Forbes reported in January: “The tools that Palantir customises for ICE have helped turbocharge the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigrants.”

But Palantir employees aren’t universally happy with being functionaries of Trump’s reactionary immigrant-baiting. Staff reportedly confronted CEO Alex Karp about the subject in 2018, asking management to redirect the profits from ICE contracts to a non-profit charity.

The company has not jumped to the demands of these employees, however. The common attitude seems to have been summed up by Palantir co-founder Peter Thiel, who called Google’s decision to drop a federal defence contract, due to pressure from staff, “treasonous”.

Thiel’s right-wing politics appears to be the governing ethos of Palantir – something that has elevated the company in the eyes of the Trump administration in recent years. Thiel, a venture capitalist who founded PayPal and helped to fund Facebook, has been one of the President’s most prominent supporters and, in turn, Trump has been one of Palantir’s best clients.

Thiel spoke at the Republican Party National Convention in 2016, when Trump accepted its nomination for President, predicting that the businessman would lead an American resurgence. In the same year, the big tech billionaire donated $1.25 million to Trump’s campaign and adjacent political causes.

Ever since, Palantir’s bank account has been bulging with US Government cash. As it currently stands, the company holds $1.5 billion in contracts with the federal Government, including an army intelligence contract worth $800 million awarded in 2018.

Trump has even relied on Palantir at the expense of existing federal agencies.

The President has told hospitals to stop sending COVID-19 data to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – the national health institute attached to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Instead, he has said that all data should be supplied to the HHS Protect system managed by Palantir.


A BRAVE NEW WORLD

The case of Palantir is a political and ethical dilemma the world currently isn’t equipped to deal with.

There are concerns that it could use the health data that it acquires through HHS Protect to track down and deport migrants – after all, its work with ICE involves compiling data from an array of different federal agencies.

“We have valid concerns on whether the existing surveillance framework Palantir has created to track and arrest immigrants will be supplemented by the troves of potentially personal health information contained within the HHS Protect platform,” Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus wrote in late June.

Palantir maintains that all US Coronavirus health data will remain “under the sole stewardship” of the HHS. However, Palantir’s dominance in the field of COVID data mining, combined with its global span and non-medical portfolio, makes it worthy of greater scrutiny.

The company is being allowed to process medical, defence, national security and general criminal data from across the world. If this amount of data was concentrated in a single government department, civil liberties advocates would rightly be warning of an Orwellian concentration of power.

This threat isn’t diminished by the laws of the free market. In fact, when the company handling the data runs on a profit motive – an inherently amoral system based on selling to the highest bidder – the threat becomes inordinately greater.


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