Palantir was founded in 2004, in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Its founders wanted to help intelligence agencies organize the data they collected, so that they would identify threats before they could strike. It is widely rumored that its tools helped find Osama Bin Laden prior to his assassination in 2011 (another theory is that the US simply bribed Pakistani officials).
But Palantir is not good at making money. The company has never been profitable, in large part because it had to customize its products for each client, making economies of scale impossible. A new product launched in 2017, called Foundry, is supposed to solve this problem. Europe became the testing ground for this new commercial strategy, which relies largely on Foundry.
AlgorithmWatch asked close to forty German companies about their links to Palantir and browsed hundreds of open sources to map Palantir’s clients.
Palantir’s software is nothing special. Despite claims that it could turn “data landfills into gold mines,” it simply provides a visual interface that lets clients interact with their own data streams. It is built on top of existing technologies such as Apache Spark, a cluster-computing framework. An employee, who might not be privy to every product of the company, wrote in 2016 that Palantir did “no artificial intelligence”, “no machine learning” and “no magic”.
These relatively modest capabilities might explain why several clients, including American Express and Coca-Cola, dropped Palantir in the last few years. Giovanni Tummarello, co-founder of the Ireland-based Siren.io, a competitor, claimed in 2017 to have signed some of Palantir’s former clients, mostly due to lower prices.
Rooted in politics
What makes Palantir worth watching are its political ramifications. Peter Thiel, a co-founder and investor in the company, served in Donald Trump’s transition team in 2016. The CIA, via its In-Q-Tel investment arm, took an early participation in the firm. Today, Palantir provides US immigration authorities with software that helps them implement their policy of separating children from their parents at the border.
In Europe, the company presented itself as a barrier against terrorism. It signed the secret services of France and the Danish police as clients in 2016 after attacks were perpetrated there. In Denmark, laws had to be changed to allow for the collection of personal data to “prevent” future crimes – and feed Palantir's software.
While Palantir claims that clients remain in control of their data, it strives to convince them to share most of it in anonymized format, in order to improve its offering towards all customers. Skywise, a tool based on Foundry and developed together with Airbus, encourages airlines to share their data for everyone to benefit.
Giving Palantir such control over private or public-sector data could be dangerous. In 2017, the New York police department decided to discontinue their relationship with Palantir, claiming their tool brought too little value for money. Palantir refused to release the data its client entrusted the platform in an open format, holding it de facto hostage.
Despite such practices and the breadth of the competition, some public-sector organizations still present Palantir as unavoidable. The police in Hesse, a German Land, said as much when it bypassed standard public tender procedures to buy their tool.
Palantir’s CEO, Alex Karp, sits on the boards of German giants BASF and Axel Springer and was seen cosying up to then-defense minister Ursula von der Leyen at the 2018 Munich Security Conference. There is no doubt that he will do everything he can to peddle more of Palantir’s wares to companies and public services in Europe.
But trusting the company requires a leap of faith. Palantir previously misrepresented its involvement in the Cambridge Analytica scandal and lied about its role in the deportation system set up by the Trump administration. Parliaments across Europe should keep a close watch on it.
Additional research by Boris Kartheuser