Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel has provoked a flood of public discussion in a few short months. Best known as a co-founder of PayPal and board member of Facebook, the formerly reticent Thiel burst into the spotlight last May, when his secret role in the Hulk Hogan "sex tapes" scandal was revealed. While that was still simmering, Thiel emerged as an avid supporter of Donald Trump for President, and he leveraged a reported $1.25 million campaign donation into a key slot in the President-elect's transition team.
This is all quite interesting, but it obscures some issues surrounding Palantir, another Peter Thiel venture that is only just beginning to break into the mainstream spotlight.
Among Thiel's current ventures is the data mining startup Palantir, which counts the U.S. government among its chief clients. That includes the National Security Administration, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation among a baker's dozen of federal agencies.
Back in 2013, Forbes was among the few traditional media organizations to highlight the implications of Palantir's business model when it took note of the startlingly rapid growth of this "CIA Funded Data Mining Juggernaut:"
The biggest problem for Palantir's business may be just how well its software works: It helps its customers see too much. In the wake of NSA leaker Edward Snowden's revelations of the agency's mass surveillance, Palantir's tools have come to represent privacy advocates' greatest fears of data-mining technology -- Google-level engineering applied directly to government spying.With its heavy reliance on taxpayer-funded contracts, the Palantir business model is a little ironic in the context of Thiel's active promotion of the libertarian ideal of small (or no) government.
Thiel caused a stir in 2009 with the publication of his "Education of a Libertarian" essay in the top Libertarian journal Cato Unbound. Among other things, he argued that freedom and democracy are incompatible, and that technology must carve out a "new space for freedom."
That space, Thiel argues, can only be carved out in three areas, one of which is cyberspace (the other two options are outer space and the open seas).
Thiel backed up his words with major financial support for the Libertarian presidential candidacy of Ron Paul in 2012.
The Palantir connection becomes more than a little ironic when you consider that Thiel's version of libertarianism comes with a heavy dose of talk about the individual right to privacy.
Intentional or not, Thiel's public persona as a dedicated libertarian has masked the anti-libertarian potential embedded within his own company's signature technology.
It's a twist on the familiar practice of greenwashing, in which a company promotes itself as environmentally responsible without actually doing much to back up that claim -- or, in some cases, while actively engaged in environmentally destructive practices.
That's a profound misrepresentation of the libertarian concept of individual rights, but until recently the media has given him a pass on that.
Last week, Vanity Fair noted that Thiel's high profile role in the Trump transition is ripe with conflict of interest issues:
...the billionaire venture capitalist serves on the boards of several private-sector tech companies, and has early-stage investments in other start-ups like Lyft, Airbnb, and SpaceX through his venture-capital firm, Founders Fund...Vanity Fair also noted that Palantir raises "the biggest, and the most troubling" red flags. That is backed up by a report in The Verge, which describes the company's role in partnering with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency on a system of profiling algorithms called the Analytical Framework for Intelligence:
...the system draws from a variety of federal, state, and local law enforcement databases that gather and analyze often-sensitive details about people, including biographical information, personal associations, travel itineraries, immigration records, and home and work addresses, as well as fingerprints, scars, tattoos, and other physical traits.
Last month Triple Pundit described how Peter Thiel has defined diversity down to include white nationalism. Basically, Thiel has been making the argument that "different" views should be respected on an equal footing, not judged. That concept seems to be gaining some traction among the Silicon Valley set.
As the campaign season heated up, Facebook co-founder and fellow board member Mark Zuckerberg wrote a note to employees, after word bubbled up that the rank and file would like to see Thiel booted out.
Zuckerberg argued that Thiel should remain with Facebook despite his views, because diversity is a good thing:
We care deeply about diversity. That’s easy to say when it means standing up for ideas you agree with. It’s a lot harder when it means standing up for the rights of people with different viewpoints to say what they care about. That’s even more important.So far Facebook has not received much in the way of blowback from the media. It's another story with IBM, which is weathering the aftereffects of an open letter that CEO Ginni Rometty penned to Donald Trump on November 15.
Without any reference to toxic rhetoric by Trump and his high profile supporters during the campaign, Rometty leads off with this observation:
Last Tuesday night you spoke about bringing the country together to build a better future, and the opportunity to harness the creative talent of people for the benefit of all...IBM employees responded last week with an online petition and list of demands calling on the company to re-affirm its core value as "global family without borders." The petition garnered 500 signatures within its first few days of operation.
I am writing to offer ideas that I believe will help achieve the aspiration you articulated and that can advance a national agenda in a time of profound change.
Topping the list of a demands, petition signers want the option to exempt themselves from the kind of "extreme vetting" operation that Palantir enables.
The backlash is also building up to the point where it threatens to re-expose IBM's role in the Holocaust, a history that resonates ominously in the Palantir business model.
Under its former iteration as the International Business Machine company, IBM provided Nazi Germany with tabulation machines called Holleriths. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museusm, Holleriths were commonly used throughout Europe for processing census data beginning in the late 1800's.
In the wrong hands, this seemingly benign tool became deadly:
The information from the 1939 census helped Nazi official Adolf Eichmann to create the Jewish Registry, containing detailed information on all Jews living in Germany. The Registry also recorded the names of Jews in Austria and the Sudetenland of western Czechoslovakia, which were occupied by German troops in 1938 and 1939 and made part of the Reich (German empire). Nazi racial ideology and policies did not stop at Germany's borders.With few exceptions, tech company leadership has been largely silent over Trump's plans for information-gathering over the next four years.
In the latest development, Peter Thiel apparently played the key role in organizing a December 15 meeting of leading tech CEOs with the President-elect. None of them had anything to say afterwards, though Recode managed to assemble some unattributed snippets together. Here's a sample:
We definitely gave up a little stature now for possible benefit later,” said one source, noting that it was the price of being a public company with a tweet-happy new U.S. leader. “It’s better to be quiet now and speak up later if we have to, and save our powder.”It looks like tech employees aren't waiting around for leadership to "speak up later." Aside from the IBM petition, thousands of tech workers have committed to action steps and advocate for resistance through neveragain.tech, a project that grew out of the inaugural meeting of the Bay Area Tech Solidarity organization.
Photo (cropped): Hollerith machine by Marcin Wichary via flickr.com, creative commons license.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.