Palantir Technologies tried to keep a low profile, but with the Wall Street Journal hailing it in 2009 as the “team of geeks who cracked the spy trade,” the firm drew a lot of attention. If providing the software equivalent of a crystal ball to every US spy agency caused Palantir to be regarded as an omen of dystopian portent, there is now more chatter about Peter Thiel, chairman of Palantir, serving as a shadowy special adviser to Trump. Palantir made data-mining sexy and saves the lives of US soldiers, but there are good reasons to ferret out the secrets of the firm and its founder. Palantir’s mission is avowedly to “reduce terrorism” while preserving privacy and civil liberties, but its products in the hands of the Trump regime are a grave threat to both.
When they first met, Trump told Thiel, “You are terrific. We’re friends for life.” Trump identified in Thiel a huge asset for his campaign strategy and for his policy agenda. Trump and Thiel think alike when it comes to the press and immigrants, yet they are both similarly hypocritical in their concern for privacy and litigiousness when they feel violated. Thiel recently bankrolled the lawsuit which bankrupted Gawker, gave a cool million to an anti-immigrant organization in 2008, and gladly provided $1.25 million to Rebekah Mercer’s Trump super PAC, now accused of illegally paying Steve Bannon’s salary. Judging by his ponderous statements about computers, Trump knows nothing whatsoever about technology, so Thiel — as the only adviser other than Bannon from the tech industry — can showcase his libertarian futurist Big Brother vision in the Oval Office, generating more business for Palantir.
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Move over CIA! Along with Cambridge Analytica, which features Bannon as a board member, and the other private intelligence company Thiel founded, Quid, Trump has access to three private intelligence companies. Palantir’s exploits aren’t limited to helping US military locate improvised explosive devices. In 2011, federal contractor HBGary’s hacked emails revealed Palantir’s involvement, which Barrett Brown went to prison to expose, in retaliatory campaigns against WikiLeaks, labor unions and ThinkProgress. Palantir’s CEO Alex Karp apologized “to progressive organizations in general and [Glenn Greenwald] in particular,” reaffirming the company’s commitment to building software “that protects privacy and civil liberties.”
A Palantir employee explained in a promotional video: “If you have multiple analysts working on the problem, you have to have collaboration, and collaboration doesn’t make sense without access control. Each person in your enterprise has a limited view because you have to respect the privacy of your users, of your customers, of citizens.” Considering that Palantir was originally funded by the CIA and has the NSA as a major client, that statement borders on absurd.
A recent post on Harvard Business School’s tech blog noted “[Palantir’s] operating model, combined with motives for growth and profitability have recently created conflict between their business and operating model,” suggesting Palantir’s business development arm distributes its software to as many clients as possible, after which, tech support eventually leaves them to use it as they please. This poses a privacy dilemma of disgruntling proportions, manufactured by Palantir.
Though his firm has various government contracts, Thiel has not signed any standard ethics form. The former ethics counsel of President George H.W. Bush, University of Minnesota Professor Richard Painter, stated in an email to Truthout that Thiel “seems to be one more behind-the-scenes guy who will not be subject to any of the ethics rules, along with [Carl] Icahn and perhaps even the Trump children.”
House Democrats’ Move to Protect Dreamers’ Privacy
On December 5, 2016, 60 Democratic House Representatives delivered a letter to President Obama, urging him to draft an executive order to protect the privacy rights of 740,000 Dreamers enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program from attempts by the Trump administration to use their personal biometric data, social media profiles, home addresses and criminal histories to track and deport them.
Two weeks later, The Verge reported on Palantir’s role as the secret engineer of the Analytical Framework for Intelligence, a tool that can be used to limit migration by tracking people, analyzing their activities and assessing or “vetting” their risk. The Dreamers’ uncertainty ended when Vox published six leaked executive orders, one of which scraps the DACA program and leaves the Dreamers slated for deportation once their current visas expire. Though Trump says his plan will “have a lot of heart,” there is still great uncertainty over the DACA program. Senators Lindsey Graham and Dick Durban have reintroduced the Bar Removal of Individuals who Dream and Grow our Economy (BRIDGE) Act, which could offer Dreamers protection as long as they have lived in the country continuously and have not been convicted of any significant crimes.
Professor Paul Kan, at the US Army War College, questioned whether mass deportations will be effective, saying:
Mass deportations enabled by good tech is no slam dunk. It’s not like Trump can create a new “deportation force,” grab people and then dump them across the brand new, beautiful wall he’s going to build. They still have to appear before a judge and have a date set for their removal from the US.
Kan also called attention to the resistance. “In Afghanistan, our technology has at best led us to a stalemate against an adversary with less gear,” he said. “Imagine what well-connected, networked communities and cities can do to thwart mass deportations.”
Dreamers Make Contingency Plans, Officials Prepare for War
Ignacia Rodriguez, a policy advocate at the National Immigration Law Center (NILC), told Truthout that many wonder what will be done with Dreamers’ personal information. Rodriguez reported that Dreamers have been consulting with immigration lawyers, making contingency plans and telling their stories under the hashtag #heretostay because “their activism makes them a harder target [for the Trump administration].” For those in the middle of law school or buying a house, they are left hanging on the vague assurances of the Trump administration. Ms. Rodriguez lamented, “We don’t know if [Trump] will allow people to live without fear of deportation.”
The NILC will support Dreamers along with the ACLU, which released its battle plan on January 19, declaring that its 300 attorneys would “mount rapid response to immigration reads, file systemic litigation to challenge Fourth Amendment violations [and] … develop legal theories to defend sanctuary cities against federal action.”
Officials in sanctuary cities are gearing up for a legal war with Trump, and the State of California retained the big guns, former Attorney General Eric Holder.
Professor Susan Carle, from American University Washington College of Law, told Truthout that she expects a US Supreme Court case between one or more cities against the federal government over the issue of a state’s right to protect its citizens. She recalled, “Conservatives were always protecting states’ rights. Now, the shoe is on the other foot. It’s going to be really interesting to see if the justices still see it the same way.”
A Plot to Expose Thiel’s Secrets and Conflicts
The nonprofit news site MuckRock, in collaboration with the Motherboard news site, has filed six (of 500) Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for its Thiel Fellowship, which employs three journalists to investigate Thiel’s activities. The NYPD, the CIA and the NSA claimed that any responsive documents were exempted to protect national security. Michael Morisy, cofounder of MuckRock, acknowledged in an interview that Thiel has driven tech forward and that Palantir could help government improve cyber security, but he cautioned, “It gets worrisome when tools are created for mass surveillance with little public oversight or control.” He continued, “Increasingly, local police are acting like intelligence agencies. There’s not much scrutiny. [Palantir] has won a lot of contracts with cities, states and federal agencies, but the public doesn’t know what it’s paying for.”
For Thiel, conflicts of interest are often a sign that “someone understands something way better than if there’s no conflict of interest.” In an interview with The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd, Thiel turned every question on its head, but such sophistry may not be sufficient for Palantir’s competitors and legal ethics experts. Professor Painter warned that if Thiel is still involved with the administration post-inauguration, the US Department of Justice or an agency inspector general could start investigations of his conflicts of interest. Palantir’s competitors could also contest awards of future government contracts.
Palantir did not respond to requests for comment and has sought to distance itself from Trump’s agenda, denying that it would build a Muslim registry. Regardless, Palantir already provided the “seeing stone” that Trump’s administration needs to become the most sophisticated dictatorship in history, in which Chairman Thiel is set to play a mostly shrouded role. Morisy of MuckRock, concluded, “I hope our institutions live up to their obligations to protect the interest of taxpayers and citizens. There was already a problem of the revolving door, now everybody’s on the same side of the door, involved in the private sector and government at the same time.” As a sign of the times, Thiel is considering a run for governor of California.