This has been quite an eyebrow-raising couple of months for Facebook board member and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. In May, word slipped out that the tech billionaire secretly funded a crippling lawsuit against the online media network Gawker. That was quickly followed by the disclosure that Thiel is that rarest of Silicon Valley unicorns, a pledged delegate for Donald Trump. Now comes word that his “secretive” data-mining company Palantir is reaching out to former employees with an unusual offer aimed at cutting off their ability to speak with reporters.
All of this activity raises some interesting issues about privacy, national security and freedom of the press. Things get even weirder when you add Thiel’s 2009 libertarian manifesto into the mix. It leads off with the the observation: “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.”
And then there’s Thiel’s association with white nationalist groups…
Thiel’s not-so-secret Palantir Technologies
To be clear, Thiel’s name has not popped up in any public discussions of the national security team that Trump would assemble as president.
However, given the “quirky mix” of “third-rate people” on Trump’s short list, it’s quite possible that Thiel’s national security connections could be of use in a Trump presidency.
Thiel is a co-founder and investor in the data-mining company Palantir Technologies. The startup launched in 2004 in a cloud of secrecy, but in recent years the strings have loosened quite a bit.
At $20 billion, Palantir is ranked as the third most valuable private company in the U.S.
The company’s What We Do page on its website lists “solving problems in the finance sector and the government intelligence community” as its two initial areas of focus. The powerful software platform involves highlighting connections among widespread databases, resulting in a string of spectacular successes for which the company claims credit.
Last year, Tech Crunch shed some further light on the company by disclosing a 2013 prospectus that included a list of Palantir clients:
“As of 2013, Palantir was used by at least 12 groups within the U.S. government including the CIA, DHS, NSA, FBI, the CDC, the Marine Corps, the Air Force, Special Operations Command, West Point, the Joint IED-defeat organization and Allies, the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.”
Tech Crunch also noted that Palantir includes the legal research field as a third area of focus along with government and finance. That’s an interesting bit of information, considering that Thiel was linked to a whole network of lawsuits against Gawker in addition to the notorious Hulk Hogan case. As of this writing, legal research is not listed on Palantir’s What We Do page.
Palantir on the move
Palantir made some huge real estate moves in its home base of Palo Alto as of late. Consistent with its secretive nature, the company has not done any particular horn-tooting over the expansion. Despite some recent stumbles, the company has good reason to be optimistic about its prospects for growth.
Just last month, for example, the company won a $222 million contract to provide its All Source Information Fusion software to the Defense Department’s Special Operation Forces Acquisition, Technology and Logistics agency in support of the Special Operations Command.
SOCom employs a force of about 10,000 personnel in 80 countries, tasked with special reconnaissance, foreign internal defense, civil affairs operations, security force assistance and foreign humanitarian assistance.
It assumed new leadership in March, and during the change-of-command ceremony outgoing SOCom commander Army Gen. Joseph Votel articulated the need to ramp up national security capabilities. His laundry list of reasons included:
“…old enemies reasserting themselves in new ways, rising powers challenging our influence and interests, deep sectarian divides that crisscross our national objectives, provocative leaders controlling the most destructive weapons, and humanitarian and social situations that challenge the existing order.”
An offer that (former) employees can’t resist
While Palantir is looking forward to the future, it is also reaching back to the past. On May 20, BuzzFeed reported that Palantir would buy up to $225 million of its common stock from former staff members as well as current employees.
The inclusion of former staff members in the offer certainly sounds generous, and according to BuzzFeed the offer itself is on the high side. At $7.40 per share, the price is reportedly higher than the valued determined by some of the company’s large investors.
That’s especially good news for former employees because, until recently, Palantir had a reputation for underpaying its employees relative to Silicon Valley standards.
In another report earlier in May, BuzzFeed noted that the company finally boosted its pay rate by 20 percent as of April. That’s too late to be of use to former employees, which makes their inclusion in the stock offer seem even more generous.
However, in the latest development, BuzzFeed reports that Palantir encumbered the offer with significant qualifiers. The company seems particularly interested in controlling any and all communication with the media:
“Former employees can’t make any public statement — ‘or statement likely to become public (including without limitation, via online, print, television or radio media or social media or online forums)’ — that reveals any confidential information about Palantir or its executives and directors, except with written approval from Palantir’s media relations team, the agreement says.
“And what if a reporter gets in touch to ask a question about Palantir? Former employees must ‘immediately notify firstname.lastname@example.org via email,’ and then ‘furnish to email@example.com, within three (3) business days of its receipt, a copy of such request or inquiry,’” reported William Alden of BuzzFeed News.
Peter Thiel and Donald Trump
That brings us back around to Thiel’s support for Donald Trump. The two men already share an alarming antipathy toward freedom of the press. And the Palantir offer sheds more light on how far Thiel is willing to go.
That’s “willing to go” in terms of protecting his own interests. Protecting other peoples’ privacy rights is another matter. Thiel’s involvement in Palantir could undercut the privacy interests he espouses as a libertarian.
For all of the company’s success in helping government nail the bad guys, Palantir has assembled a powerful force that could just as easily be turned on the general public.
Palantir’s activities have already raised concerns in the civil rights community. In 2011 Jay Stanley of the American Civil Liberties Union published a warning about Palantir under the heading, “Beware of Data Miners Offering Protection,” in which he questioned the effectiveness of the company’s data mining platform in preventing terrorism.
In 2014, LA Weekly published a piece on the militarization of civilian law enforcement surveillance tactics, under the incendiary title, “Forget the NSA, the LAPD Spies on Millions of Innocent Folks.” The article described a number of tech initiatives undertaken by the Los Angeles Police Department, including an ongoing relationship with Palantir:
“…Peter Bibring, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, has seen at least one Suspicious Activity Report from LAPD in which investigators used Palantir’s intelligence-analysis software to delve into “license plates, leads and suspect profiles,” the paper reported.
“(Suspicious Activity Reports, or SARs, are citizen- or police-generated tips about potential terrorist activities; they are controversial because they rely on the ‘reasonable indication’ standard for investigating, rather than the tougher crime standard of ‘reasonable suspicion.’)”
Palantir, and companies like it, have also caught the eye of Hollywood screenwriters. If you’re a fan of Captain America, go back and take another look at the movie “Captain America: Winter Soldier.” The the plot device is a top-secret, data-leveraged program that identifies potential threats to national security. Just watch what happens when the system is hijacked by bad guys masquerading as good guys.
No worries, though. Though Peter Thiel could find himself slotted into a Donald Trump administration, Captain America screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely made it pretty clear that Steve Rogers will not.