Pattern Matching

Google and Palantir Are Two Sides of the Same Coin

Both companies leverage vast amounts of data for unprecedented surveillance

Will Oremus
OneZero
Published in
9 min readOct 3, 2020

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Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images

If you know the name Palantir, you probably know that it’s associated with Peter Thiel, that it contracts with defense and law enforcement agencies, and that it works with data somehow, including data from surveillance systems. You might get that it’s named, creepily enough, after the magical “seeing-stones” in Lord of the Rings.

But what exactly it is that Palantir does has not always been clear from media coverage. That’s partly because the company has intentionally cultivated an air of secrecy and mystery around its work. But it’s also partly because the actual nature of its work is somewhat murky and hard to pin down, even once you know what it is.

On Thursday, Palantir went public in a direct listing, completing a transition from a shadowy Silicon Valley unicorn to one that must answer quarterly to investors and regulators. Its shares dipped just a bit from their initial price but left the company with a hefty valuation on the order of $20 billion, per the Wall Street Journal. That’s remarkable for a company that has just 125 customers.

Enterprise software companies tend to stay out of the spotlight; their products are not used, let alone beloved, by the masses, as are those of consumer software giants such as Google. But Palantir in particular is worth knowing about, because it embodies a vision of technology’s role in society that carries profound implications for all of us. And the Google comparison is more instructive than it might seem: Palantir is, in some ways, the yin to Google’s yang.

The Pattern

Palantir is a tech company built for our emerging dystopia.

  • To understand what Palantir does, there’s no better starting point than this New York magazine profile by Sharon Weinberger, published on the day the company went public. Palantir’s promise, she notes, is “to ingest the mountains of data collected by soldiers and spies and police — fingerprints, signals intelligence, bank records, tips from confidential informants — and enable users to spot hidden relationships, uncover criminal and…

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