Never mind Cambridge Analytica. Peter Thiel's data-mining company Palantir is watching your every move

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Bloomberg Businessweek's April 20 cover.
Bloomberg Businessweek's April 20 cover. Credit: Bloomberg Businessweek

Just as the Cambridge Analytica drama is fading (somewhat) from memory, Bloomberg Businessweek is out with a sobering cover story about Peter Thiel's mysterious data-mining company. "Do you know Palantir?" type on the April 20 cover asks. "Because Palantir knows you." The cover image is obviously meant to evoke a "Big Brother"-esque aura.

Reported by Peter Waldman, Lizette Chapman and Jordan Robertson, Bloomberg Businessweek's feature opens with previously undisclosed details about an internal program at JPMorgan Chase that was meant to "protect against perfidious traders and other miscreants" but turned into a "spying scandal" that "vacuumed up emails and browser histories, GPS locations from company-issued smartphones, printer and download activity, and transcripts of digitally recorded phone conversations."

The effort, which Bloomberg Businessweek says went astray when a JPMorgan Chase security executive "went rogue," was "aided by as many as 120 'forward-deployed engineers' from the data-mining company Palantir Technologies Inc."

If you've heard of 18-year-old Palantir, it's probably because the company has a notorious billionaire co-founder—Gawker-killer Peter Thiel—and/or because Palantir's work for the Pentagon, the CIA and other government entities has gotten press over the years. But in its story, Bloomberg Businessweek says that what began as "an intelligence platform designed for the global War on Terror" has now been "weaponized against ordinary Americans at home."

"Palantir Knows Everything About You" chronicles some of the internal drama at Palantir itself and, yes, its association with Cambridge Analytica (which Palantir says was not a corporately-sanctioned entanglement, but instead involved an employee working with CA on his own time). The story also says that Palantir ...

... operates less like a conventional software company than like a consultancy, deploying roughly half its 2,000 engineers to client sites. That works at well-funded government spy agencies seeking specialized applications but has produced mixed results with corporate clients. Palantir's high installation and maintenance costs repelled customers such as Hershey Co., which trumpeted a Palantir partnership in 2015 only to walk away two years later. Coca-Cola, Nasdaq, American Express, and Home Depot have also dumped Palantir.

What makes the story a must-read: Details about Palantir's involvement with not only federal-level terrorism-fighting organizations but local law enforcement. For instance,

The LAPD uses Palantir's Gotham product for Operation Laser, a program to identify and deter people likely to commit crimes. ... The list is distributed to patrolmen, with orders to monitor and stop the pre-crime suspects as often as possible, using excuses such as jaywalking or fix-it tickets.

Remember, all of this—including the very idea of pre-criminals—is not dystopian fiction. It's going on right now, with help from Palantir.

Read the full Bloomberg Businessweek story here.

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