This is an email from Pattern Matching, a newsletter by OneZero.
Google and Palantir Are Two Sides of the Same Coin
Both companies leverage vast amounts of data for unprecedented surveillance
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.
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 terrorist networks, and even anticipate future attacks.”
- In short, Palantir is “a sort of Google for spies,” although it now serves corporate and public health clients as well as soldiers and spooks. This is consistent with Palantir’s self-description, in its public filing, as a purveyor of software that “enables our customers to transform massive amounts of information into knowledge that reflects their world.”
- What makes Weinberger’s piece so valuable, however, is how it interrogates the margins between what Palantir promises and what it delivers. For Palantir to realize its vision at scale, it would have to largely automate the process of combining and converting vast, messy data sets into actionable insights about the world. That’s a very high bar for artificial intelligence, and Weinberger’s reporting suggests that Palantir isn’t particularly close to meeting it. Instead, like many of today’s ambitious automation tools, its platform requires what one intelligence-community source called “RFOP,” or “rooms full of people” working behind the curtain to clean, label, and interpret the data. Palantir also sends employees that it calls “forward-deployed engineers” to work permanently onsite with clients, helping them tailor the platform to their needs. (You can learn more about the quotidian mechanics of the work by reading Quora posts from current and former Palantir employees.)
- More than any crystal-ball wizardry, Palantir has won over big clients such as the U.S. Army through white-glove customer service and consulting, plus a user interface much slicker and friendlier than the often-outdated systems it seeks to replace. It has been helped along the way by clever sales tactics, Thiel’s relationship with the Trump administration, and a willingness to lose piles of money in pursuit of future growth. (Palantir has never turned a profit.)
- As a business, then, Palantir is very different from Google. One provides free, heavily automated tools to the masses in exchange for data to power targeted ads. The other provides expensive, labor-intensive data modeling tools and data consulting services on an exclusive basis to a limited number of huge organizations, whose data it promises to keep private. (Palantir has struggled to tap the local law enforcement market, with a few notable exceptions, because it’s simply too expensive.) Palantir’s rift with Silicon Valley is not merely abstract; it’s actually relocating to Denver from Palo Alto.
- Palantir CEO Alex Karp defines his company’s values in opposition to Google’s. In Palantir’s S-1 filing, he took an implicit shot at Google for walking away from its Project Maven military contract in response to employee backlash, while continuing to invade its own users’ privacy. “Our software is used to target terrorists and to keep soldiers safe,” Karp wrote. “We have chosen sides.” At Davos in January, he acknowledged that Palantir has helped ICE find and deport immigrants (as Motherboard had previously uncovered), and defended the company’s government contracts. “The core mission of our company always was to make the West, especially America, the strongest in the world, the strongest it’s ever been, for the sake of global peace and prosperity,” he said in an interview there.
- That sort of muscular rhetoric, along with Thiel’s Trump ties and Palantir’s business model, would seem to belie Karp’s own claim to be politically progressive. (To the extent these men’s ideologies matter, by the way, it’s because Palantir’s governance structure as a public company keeps almost all the power in its founders’ hands.) In fact, Karp identified as neo-Marxist in his grad school days, when he earned a doctorate in “neoclassical social theory” at Germany’s Goethe University, home to the famous philosopher Jurgen Habermas.
- For a deeper dive into Karp’s philosophy, and an attempt to reconcile it with the politics of both Thiel and Palantir itself, you can read this fascinating critique of his dissertation by the historian and media theorist Moira Weigel, published in July in the journal boundary 2. (You could also try reading the dissertation itself, I suppose, provided you can read German and have a lot of time on your hands.) In Weigel’s reading, despite their ideological differences, both Karp and Thiel “regard the desire to commit violence as a constant, founding fact of human life.” And while Karp engages with critical theory, his account of aggression’s primary role in language, culture, and socialization is fundamentally analytical rather than normative. That is, he takes it as a given rather than a problem to be overcome.
- In a phone interview for this newsletter Friday, Weigel expanded on how Karp’s philosophy relates to his work with Palantir. “When you take up the tradition of what he calls neo-Marxism and take away the emancipatory impulse that animated it — that the point is to make society less violent— what you get is a very pessimistic view of modernity and society,” she said. That dark worldview helps to explain why Karp might regard the appropriate response as being to simply “choose a side,” as he put it in Palantir’s S-1 — and keep a vigilant watch on what the other side is up to.
- Here again, the contrasts with Google are striking. Google’s aesthetic is sunny and whimsical — think of its colorful logo, its doodles, its dessert-themed Android operating systems — and its products often reflect a worldview that is optimistic to a fault. Its tools promise to put the world’s information in everyone’s hands, for free; it speaks of information as empowering and democratizing, and implicitly assumes that people will use it for good. That’s a convenient assumption for Google’s business model, because a world in which information is unlikely to be abused is one in which people freely share their data, which can in turn be leveraged to show them relevant ads. If Palantir’s world is zero-sum, Google’s is win-win; Palantir runs on suspicion, Google on trust.
- Zoom out far enough, though, and Palantir and Google start to look like flipsides of the same coin. Ultimately, both promise to harness machine learning and computing power to bring together and organize disparate sources of information and make it searchable. The customers and revenue models are different, but the value proposition is the same — to allow people to quickly surface and synthesize information that would otherwise remain disjunct and obscure. (That’s one reason they so often compete for the same engineering talent; according to the New York profile, early Palantir employees wore t-shirts that said “Google is our backup job.”) And while each might point fingers at the other, surveillance is integral to both models. In one, the customers are doing the surveilling; in the other, the customers are the ones surveilled.
- Privacy theorists sometimes talk about “privacy through obscurity” — the idea that the average person’s everyday privacy resides not in a lack of available information about them, but in the difficulty of tracking it down. Your ISP might know what websites you visit; the DMV knows your license plate number; your next-door neighbor knows what time you leave the house each day; the local newspaper may have an old article about you somewhere in its archives. But as long as no single entity has ready access to all of that information, a semblance of privacy remains intact.
- To see how Palantir explodes that obscurity, consider its partnership with the Los Angeles Police Department. In a BuzzFeed News investigation this week, Caroline Haskins detailed how the company trained officers to use its tools to stitch together every piece of data they can get their hands on. “At great taxpayer expense, and without public oversight or regulation, Palantir helped the LAPD construct a vast database that indiscriminately lists the names, addresses, phone numbers, license plates, friendships, romances, jobs of Angelenos — the guilty, innocent, and those in between.”
- There are, of course, benefits and downsides to obscurity: It can empower activists to challenge governments, protect stalking victims from their stalkers — or enable criminals to evade detection. Google and Palantir think about those risks and tradeoffs very differently, with one insisting your data is safe in its hands, the other pledging to only track the bad guys on behalf of reputable clients. Yet by building tools to automate the integration of disparate data sources about people, both Google and Palantir are fundamentally anti-obscurity — and, by extension, anti-privacy. If neither has yet built anything quite like the all-seeing stone from Lord of the Rings, it isn’t for lack of trying.
- Google and Palantir aren’t the only companies automating the connection of informational dots, of course. The Softbank-backed startup Banjo AI — whose now-ousted founder was a former neo-Nazi — seeks to combine real-time data from various feeds, including surveillance video, to detect events such as emergencies as they happen. I wrote last week about how the surveillance tech built by Ring, Amazon’s home security subsidiary, empowers people to spy on each other. There’s a way of looking at today’s tech industry in which its business is essentially to eliminate society’s frictions: the obstacles to interaction, to information, to instantaneous fulfilment of desires. But the friction involved in tracking anyone you find suspicious, for any reason, is one we might be better off holding onto.
Under-the-radar trends, stories, and random anecdotes worth your time
- Coinbase is trying to keep politics out of its workplace. At a time when worker activism is helping to redefine top tech companies’ approaches to divisive issues — including Google’s aforementioned military contracts — the cryptocurrency platform’s CEO Brian Armstrong wrote in a blog post this week that he doesn’t plan to tolerate it at Coinbase. “The reason is that while I think these efforts are well intentioned, they have the potential to destroy a lot of value at most companies, both by being a distraction, and by creating internal division,” he wrote. But the idea that he can expunge politics by decree is wishful thinking, argued The Verge’s Casey Newton (soon to be Platformer’s Casey Newton). Motherboard’s Jason Koebler skewered the stance in a tweet: “Our company that wants to replace money and banking and government regulation is nonpolitical please respect that.”
- Amazon wants you to pay for things with your palm print. The company this week announced Amazon One, a biometric system that scans’ shoppers hands at store checkouts as an alternative to using a credit card, Recode’s Jason Del Rey reported. It came first to the company’s Amazon Go convenience stores in Seattle, and could eventually be headed (handed?) for Whole Foods. “Amazon will collect data on where Amazon One customers shop when they use the payment option, but it will not know what shoppers purchase or how much they spend inside third-party retail stores,” Del Rey reported. That’s one more place where your identity will be known to one of the largest tech companies.
Headlines of the Week
Companies start to think remote work isn’t so great after all
— Chip Cutter, Wall Street Journal
Inside eBay’s Cockroach Cult: The Ghastly Story of a Stalking Scandal
— David Streitfeld, New York Times