The name Alex Karp may not mean much to you now — but it’s about to. That’s because Alex is the brains behind Palantir, the closest thing to a “killer app” the U.S. government has — a system which allows one to discern meaningful context and insights from a swamp of seemingly meaningless data.
With scraps of what appear to be unrelated information, Palantir can craft intuitive charts, visual graphs and vital forecasts — showcasing ties and links on everything from the locations of wanted criminals to hotbeds of human trafficking.
What does this mean for the rest of us? Everything.
What is Palantir?
The name “Palantir” comes from a fictional stone in the Tolkien universe that allowed the user to see things happening in different areas — much like a crystal ball. This modern version ties together wisps of information to track, monitor and make connections in everything from wars to law enforcement.
A few of Palantir’s more notable moments include:
- Helping U.S. forces track down and kill Osama Bin Laden
- Assisting the Marines in Afghanistan by doing forensic analysis of roadside bombs to predict insurgent attacks
- Sifting through 40 years of documents to convict Ponzi-schemer Bernie Madoff
- Locating Mexican drug cartel members who murdered an American customs agent
- Finding the hackers who installed spyware on the Dalai Lama’s computer
How Palantir Works
Emerging from its secretive cocoon of James Bond-like technologies and insights, Palantir is poised to change business as well. Pharmaceutical companies use Palantir to help them analyze and predict drug interactions. Hershey uses Palantir’s technology to help it increase chocolate sales. J.P. Morgan Chase uses Palantir to help it in the fight against mortgage fraud.
Imagine someone using your identity to open a home equity line of credit and siphoning funds to a computer in a cybercafe in Nigeria. Palantir can piece together these connections across data from bills, home and I.P. addresses to help eliminate the problem before it balloons into a massive loss (and a huge headache for whoever has had their identity stolen) — and it can do it all in seconds. Staff at J.P. Morgan Chase estimate that Palantir has saved them hundreds of millions of dollars.
In short, the brainchild of an eccentric philosopher is quickly becoming one of the most lucrative and profitable private tech companies. You may recognize the name of its largest stakeholder too — Peter Thiel, the billionaire investor behind PayPal and Facebook. And Palantir is poised to potentially go public — making Karp Silicon Valley’s newest billionaire and doubling Thiel’s original investment in the company.
But Karm fears the change that money will have on Palantir. An “I.P.O”, he says, “is corrosive to our culture, corrosive to our outcomes”. But at the same time, Palantir has to make money in order to thrive. It seeks out big contracts with major players and counts Democratic strategist James Carville, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, and former C.I.A. director George Tenet among its advisers.
But what does all of this mean for you?
Big Brother vs. Big Data
One need only look back a few decades to remember that making money and changing the world are often at odds with each other. While still graduate students at Stanford, Sergey Brin and Larry Page wrote that “advertising-funded search engines will be inherently biased toward the advertisers”. Then they founded Google, which makes fistfuls of money off of advertising.
Even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg championed a “society of complete openness” while being incredibly secretive about how it mines the information you share to target ads to you. A search engine and a social network are one thing – but something that can tie everything about you together in seconds – has much more serious and far-reaching implications.
But Palantir knows that privacy concerns about it are not unfounded. Courtney Bowman, a former employee at Google, now works at Palantir as a “civil liberties engineer” — helping lawmakers understand how to use modern technology while keeping privacy safeguards in place. One of Palantir’s features includes a series of safeguards designed to limit who can see what. Another feature includes an “audit trail” to let investigators see that certain rules and regulations with regard to data handling, were followed precisely.
And although these features are wired into the system, using them is not required. “What keeps me up at night is that we have to keep thinking about this as we grow into new marketing and new regions,” says Mr. Bowman. “