Donald Trump’s decision to appoint retired lieutenant general Michael Flynn as his national security adviser has been widely criticized, with publications labelling him variously a ‘right wing fruitcake’ and a ‘disaster waiting to happen’. However, there is one party likely to be happy: Palantir Technologies.
Flynn has long standing ties with Palantir, having served as an advocate in Washington for the secretive data analytics giant. He will join former Palantir employee Trae Stephens, now a principal at billionaire founder Peter Thiel’s venture capital firm Founders Fund, who was appointed last week by Donald Trump to help lead the transition effort at the Defense Department, as well as Peter Thiel himself, who is helping with the transition and will almost certainly have the president’s ear after performing an important role in the Trump campaign. Thiel has been vocal in his support for Trump, much of which is based on his contention that Washington ‘insiders’ have ‘squandered’ money, time, and human lives on international conflicts, and he donated $1,000,000 to a pro-Trump Super PAC. Together, they form what seems to be a growing Palantir cabal at the heart of Trump’s new administration.
Palantir already provides data analysis services to a host of US government groups, including the CIA, DHS, NSA, FBI, Marine Corps, Air Force, Special Operations Command, and West Point, among others. So you could argue that they really don’t need any help when it comes to getting their feet under the table. But what does it suggest about the future for data collection and mass surveillance of the American population though? It certainly marries with much of Trump’s campaign rhetoric and that of his appointments around a full scale war with Islam and the creation of a Muslim registry. Palantir's software is perfectly positioned here. It is used to analyze the massive amounts of data collected by government forces to help the military pinpoint enemy locations, potential attacks, and other battlefield information. Although little is really known about how the company operates, it is essentially an interface that sits on top of existing data sets and displays data to users for analysis, helping identify connections that would otherwise be impossible to find. Users do not have to use SQL queries or employ engineers to write strings in order to search petabytes of data. Instead, natural language is used to query data and results are returned in real-time.
There is an anti-war goal behind the technology. A spokesman for Thiel recently argued that the technology enables the military to take a more targeted approach to threats, allowing them to avoid unnecessary wide-scale conflicts Thiel has been critical of. However, civil liberties activists have voiced concerns that the software has disturbing implications for the government’s use of private information. American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) analyst Jay Stanley said the software makes possible ‘a true totalitarian nightmare, monitoring the activities of innocent Americans on a mass scale.’ Despite criticism of Obama’s facilitation of mass data collection by the NSA, given what Trump has said about national security, mass surveillance is unlikely to be something he scales back.
That Palantir is seen as a threat to privacy is somewhat ironic, given that Peter Thiel got so annoyed when Gawker invaded his privacy, he launched a ten year campaign to destroy them. Equally though, it plays no role in NSA’s bugging of citizens, and is a strong advocate for privacy. Its software incorporates a series of safeguards which limit who can see particular data, and it lays ‘audit trails’ for investigators to follow to ensure that the rules were followed. And strangely, Thiel’s politics are diametrically opposed to those of fellow co-founder and current Palantir CEO Alex Karp, who is a former neo-Marxist philosopher, Clinton supporter, and self-proclaimed ‘deviant’ with a personal interest in protecting privacy.
This year has been a strange one for Palantir, with lawsuits against investors, accusations of racial discrimination in hiring, and a number of employees and big-name clients reported to have left the firm. It is also rumoured that the company is still yet to turn a profit, despite huge revenues. However, Trump’s election does seem to mean that it will be going into 2017 on a high, coupled with their recent victory in a legal dispute with the government that means they can now compete for an Army contract valued at $206 million. If the company wins the work, Palantir would add to the $357 million it has brought in from government contracts over the past ten years or so - more than half of which came from the Department of Defence. Trump has previously called data ‘overrated’ - although his campaign appears to have invested heavily in it in the end - but the key roles being given in his defence team to Palantir advocates seems to indicate that data will play a key role in his national security efforts. Palantir is likely to be at the heart of them.