Palantir is known for its involvement in the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal where millions of Facebook users had their private information compromised. And though the company was largely innocent in the issue, its work history reveals that Palantir is no stranger to participating in projects that have questionable ethics.
Cambridge Analytica scandal
It was Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Chris Wylie who brought to the public his company’s relationship with Palantir. CNBC quotes Wylie saying to U.S. lawmakers that there was no “official contract between Palantir and Cambridge Analytica, but there were Palantir staff that would come into the office and work on that data,” while also adding that Palantir’s staff “helped build the models we were working on.”
It was a Palantir employee by the name of Alfredas Chmieliauskas who suggested Cambridge Analytica build a third party app for Facebook so as to collect user data. In addition, the employees at Palantir played a role in developing the psychographic models Cambridge Analytica used to profile and target Facebook users.
The company has denied any participation in leaking Facebook data, distancing itself from the actions of its employees. However, a look at Palantir’s history makes it very clear that the firm has been involved in projects where the privacy rights of Internet users have been compromised.
Working with the police
Palantir has worked with U.S. police departments to develop technologies that would allow law enforcement authorities to predict a crime based on criteria like the social media usage of people, their criminal history, police interviews, and so on.
In New Orleans, the company had gained access to information about citizen’s data like contact information, court documents, public records, and social media data by using the city’s LexisNexis account. It has been reported that the crime prediction technology of Palantir was responsible for an increase in surveillance and arrests of people of color in Chicago. The algorithm is also accused of supporting police bias.
“They’re creating a target list, but we’re not going after Al Qaeda in Syria. Palantir is a great example of an absolutely ridiculous amount of money spent on a tech tool that may have some application. However, it’s not the right tool for local and state law enforcement,” The Verge quotes a former official.
The company also had contracts with the National Security Agency (NSA) and was involved in providing the software that would allow the agency to collect, sort, and analyze massive amounts of data from Internet users. It helped NSA to accelerate and augment the use of XKEYSCORE, one of the most intrusive tools of the agency. User data collected include details like emails, chats, webcam photos, social media traffic, logged keystrokes, Skype sessions, voice calls, and more.
“Palantir has never masked its ambitions, in particular, the desire to sell its services to the U.S. government — the CIA itself was an early investor in the startup through In-Q-Tel, the agency’s venture capital branch. But Palantir refuses to discuss or even name its government clientele, despite landing ‘at least [US]$1.2 billion’ in federal contracts since 2009,” says an article at The Intercept.
Palantir and Cambridge Analytica are an indication of how dangerously compromised the Internet has become for an average user. Unfortunately, there is so much money to be made by collecting and exploiting user data that it is difficult to conceive of a future where companies will not be involved in such immoral and illegal acts.