One of Silicon Valley’s most impressive startups isn’t cranking out iPhone apps or taking aim at the Zuckerberg throne, it’s fighting the war on terror. Bloomberg Businessweek checked out Palantir, a firm that repurposes already-available information to help federal agents connect the dots. Think Wolfram Aplha on steroids.
The story starts by setting up fictional would-be terrorist Mike Fikri, who flew one-way from Cairo to Miami, rented a truck, and then spent his day at Disney World, but he didn’t take the rides, he took photos of the crowds. In the process, he’s wiring money to and frequently calling a group of suspected terrorists in Syria.
Unless someone was physically following Fikri, it would be difficult for the Feds to put all of these clues together what seems obvious to a reader in that paragraph: Mike Fikri is going to bomb Disney World.
Enter Palantir, the made-to-order software firm in Silicon Valley:
The day Fikri drives to Orlando, he gets a speeding ticket, which triggers an alert in the CIA’s Palantir system. An analyst types Fikri’s name into a search box and up pops a wealth of information pulled from every database at the government’s disposal. There’s fingerprint and DNA evidence for Fikri gathered by a CIA operative in Cairo; video of him going to an ATM in Miami; shots of his rental truck’s license plate at a tollbooth; phone records; and a map pinpointing his movements across the globe. All this information is then displayed on a clearly designed graphical interface that looks like something Tom Cruise would use in a Mission: Impossible movie.
As the CIA analyst starts poking around on Fikri’s file inside of Palantir, a story emerges. A mouse click shows that Fikri has wired money to the people he had been calling in Syria. Another click brings up CIA field reports on the Syrians and reveals they have been under investigation for suspicious behavior and meeting together every day over the past two weeks. Click: The Syrians bought plane tickets to Miami one day after receiving the money from Fikri. To aid even the dullest analyst, the software brings up a map that has a pulsing red light tracing the flow of money from Cairo and Syria to Fikri’s Miami condo. That provides local cops with the last piece of information they need to move in on their prey before he strikes.
Palantir is the answer to the unforseen problem of the electronic information boom: With oceans of personal data being collected and transmitted every day, how can law enforcement and military officials see the right information before it’s too late?
The software works by pairing its whip-smart AI with a group of relevant databases.
None of Fikri’s individual actions would raise suspicions. Lots of people rent trucks or have relations in Syria, and no doubt there are harmless eccentrics out there fascinated by amusement park infrastructure. Taken together, though, they suggested that Fikri was up to something. And yet, until about four years ago, his pre-attack prep work would have gone unnoticed. A CIA analyst might have flagged the plane ticket purchase; an FBI agent might have seen the bank transfers. But there was nothing to connect the two. Lucky for counterterror agents, not to mention tourists in Orlando, the government now has software made by Palantir Technologies, a Silicon Valley company that’s become the darling of the intelligence and law enforcement communities.
It’s not hard to imagine that the CIA or FBI could access security footage of any random person leaving the local convenience store, and it’s not hard to imagine they could get their hands on someone’s credit card transaction data. The scary (or awesome, if that person has bad intentions) part comes when Palantir puts two and two together. Using credit card transaction data, it will pull up security footage from everywhere a person has used their credit card, so the feds can know what their mark is wearing when they move in for a take down, and maybe even what they have with them.
For a full writeup on how incredibly cool Palantir is (and it is cool, amazingly cool), read the full article. I can’t do it justice here.
Despite being the stuff of a spy thriller, Palantir is a real company making real software for real government agencies who use it to spy on real people. Wasn’t it nice to watch Minority Report and say “That sure is cool, but I’m glad they can’t know where I am all the time just by sitting at the computer”? They can.
Palantir should exist. While Businessweek reports that the software’s real-life accomplishments are often classified, it’s hard to believe something that powerful hasn’t done some serious work saving lives. But who is using this, and for what? Is anyone looking over their shoulder?
Using Palantir technology, the FBI can now instantly compile thorough dossiers on U.S. citizens, tying together surveillance video outside a drugstore with credit-card transactions, cell-phone call records, e-mails, airplane travel records, and Web search information. Christopher Soghoian, a graduate fellow at the Center for Applied Cybersecurity in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University, worries that Palantir will make these agencies ever hungrier consumers of every piece of personal data. “I don’t think Palantir the firm is evil,” he says. “I think their clients could be using it for evil things.”
Soghoian points out that Palantir’s senior legal adviser, Bryan Cunningham, authored an amicus brief three years ago supporting the Bush Administration’s position in the infamous warrantless wiretapping case and defended its monitoring domestic communication without search warrants. Another event that got critics exercised: A Palantir engineer, exposed by the hacker collective Anonymous earlier this year for participating in a plot to break into the PCs of WikiLeaks supporters, was quietly rehired by the company after being placed on leave.
The company claims it has installed a powerful privacy protection feature that tracks which users are accessing which files and what they’re doing with them. This is promising in theory, but Soghoin says it’s naive to think its a solution to the accountability problem.
Soghoian scoffs at the privacy-protecting features Palantir builds into its software. “If you don’t think the NSA can disable the piece of auditing functionality, you have to be kidding me,” he says. “They can do whatever they want, so it’s ridiculous to assume that this audit trail is sufficient.”
So maybe that tinfoil hat was a good idea after all.
Photo/Creative Commons/Flickr user cjelli