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Thinker, Mover, Shaker, Spy: How One Man and His CIA-Backed Company are Changing the Way the Government Collects and Analyzes Your Data

February 27, 2017
Aaron Polmeer

By Sherice Jacob

The name Alex Karp may not mean much to you now — but it’s about to. That’s because Alex is the brains behind Palantir, the closest thing to a “killer app” the U.S. government has — a system which allows one to discern meaningful context and insights from a swamp of seemingly meaningless data.

With scraps of what appear to be unrelated information, Palantir can craft intuitive charts, visual graphs and vital forecasts — showcasing ties and links on everything from the locations of wanted criminals to hotbeds of human trafficking.

What does this mean for the rest of us? Everything.

What is Palantir?

The name “Palantir” comes from a fictional stone in the Tolkien universe that allowed the user to see things happening in different areas — much like a crystal ball. This modern version ties together wisps of information to track, monitor and make connections in everything from wars to law enforcement.

A few of Palantir’s more notable moments include:

  • Helping U.S. forces track down and kill Osama Bin Laden
  • Assisting the Marines in Afghanistan by doing forensic analysis of roadside bombs to predict insurgent attacks
  • Sifting through 40 years of documents to convict Ponzi-schemer Bernie Madoff
  • Locating Mexican drug cartel members who murdered an American customs agent
  • Finding the hackers who installed spyware on the Dalai Lama’s computer

How Palantir Works

Emerging from its secretive cocoon of James Bond-like technologies and insights, Palantir is poised to change business as well. Pharmaceutical companies use Palantir to help them analyze and predict drug interactions. Hershey uses Palantir’s technology to help it increase chocolate sales. J.P. Morgan Chase uses Palantir to help it in the fight against mortgage fraud.

Imagine someone using your identity to open a home equity line of credit and siphoning funds to a computer in a cybercafe in Nigeria. Palantir can piece together these connections across data from bills, home and I.P. addresses to help eliminate the problem before it balloons into a massive loss (and a huge headache for whoever has had their identity stolen) — and it can do it all in seconds. Staff at J.P. Morgan Chase estimate that Palantir has saved them hundreds of millions of dollars.

In short, the brainchild of an eccentric philosopher is quickly becoming one of the most lucrative and profitable private tech companies. You may recognize the name of its largest stakeholder too — Peter Thiel, the billionaire investor behind PayPal and Facebook. And Palantir is poised to potentially go public — making Karp Silicon Valley’s newest billionaire and doubling Thiel’s original investment in the company.

But Karm fears the change that money will have on Palantir. An “I.P.O”, he says, “is corrosive to our culture, corrosive to our outcomes”. But at the same time, Palantir has to make money in order to thrive. It seeks out big contracts with major players and counts Democratic strategist James Carville, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, and former C.I.A. director George Tenet among its advisers.

But what does all of this mean for you?

Big Brother vs. Big Data

One …read more

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