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Tina Casey headshot

Who Wants Peter Thiel's Dark Data Mining Company Out of Trump's Favor?

By Tina Casey
Peter Thiel

It looks like Silicon Valley tycoon Peter Thiel can't keep on the good side of the press. Last year the billionaire Trump supporter and Facebook board member bankrolled a lawsuit that put his nemesis Gawker Media out of business. Now BuzzFeed News has stepped in to fill the breach. BuzzFeed is known for a heady brew of clickbait, gossip and meticulously researched, hard-hitting news. This week it unleashed a bombshell in the news category with a report on Thiel's scathing criticism of the President in private conversations.

The news exposes Thiel to Trump's notorious temper. But while Thiel jabs the commander in chief, he's cashing in bigly on the president's xenophobia through his company Palantir.

Palantir is the "secret" data mining company co-founded by Thiel in 2004. It is heavily invested in federal contracts across multiple agencies including the US Army. Industry observers have been noting that it could have a big hand in enforcing the Trump administration's immigration policies.

Thiel's position as a Trump advisor has given a huge edge to Palantir as Trump's "Extreme Vetting" policy gains force, and the company could also benefit from Thiel's inside track on defense policy.

On August 7, Raw Story reported that there was a high level interest surrounding a Homeland Security industry event aimed at exploring the development of "automated software" to enable Trump's Extreme Vetting Initiative. The event took place on July 18 and 19.

Raw Story further notes that winning contractors need to show that they can mine data from a variety of sources including the FALCON database created by Palantir. Palantir has made big bucks providing data to law enforcement and cross referencing the databases of the FBI, CIA and DOD -- work that has privacy advocates shaking in their boots. Unfortunately it looks like this privately-held company will continue to profit from gray data collection practices.

The Homeland Security event was first reported by The Intercept, which obtained copies of the sign-in sheets. Names on the list include IBM, Booz Allen Hamilton, LexisNexis, SAS and Deloitte, "along with a litany of smaller firms."

Cashing in through government contracts is nothing new. But Palantir's data collection capabilities make it well suited to take advantage of any Extreme Vetting that needs to be done. Whoever wins the contract, Palantir will benefit since their databases will be in use.

So if Thiel is looking to cash in big, why take on the president? Given how much Thiel stands to lose, a better question may be: who wants Thiel out of the inner circle.

Everybody's buzzing about BuzzFeed

The BuzzFeed story appeared under the headline "Peter Thiel Has Been Hedging His Bet On Donald Trump." Here's a key snippet:

In half a dozen private conversations with friends that were described to BuzzFeed News dating from spring 2016 to as recently as May, Thiel, who served on the Presidential Transition Team Executive Committee, has criticized Trump and his administration and developed increasingly pessimistic feelings about the president.

The piece pulls together numerous threads about Thiel's activities in support of Trump dating back to the spring of 2016, including his emergence as a Trump delegate in May, his nominating speech at the Republican Convention in July, and his op-eds supporting the Trump campaign.

The authors also detail how Thiel, in his role as the President's technology advisor, has stocked the Trump administration with several close associates:

Thiel’s former chief of staff Michael Kratsios was named as deputy chief technology officer, while another former colleague, Kevin Harrington, joined the National Security Council as deputy assistant to the president. Justin Mikolay, an evangelist for Palantir — the Thiel-founded data-analysis company — was given a role in the Defense Department.

So, who has it in for Peter Thiel?

The BuzzFeed article leaves this one key detail out: their source. If you go back and read the comments attributed to Thiel, they are old (the most recent occurred in May), and they really don't amount to all that much more than idle dinner chatter.

On the other hand, idle gossip is precisely the kind of trigger that could touch off a Trump explosion.

With all the palace intrigues simmering around the White House, any number of Trump insiders would like to see Thiel lose his influence over the President.

Thiel's numerous competitors in Silicon Valley would probably also not lose any sleep if his star wanes in the White House. So who leaked? And how do they stand to gain from Thiel's star diminishing?

Image: Photo: Luc Van Braekel via flickr.com, creative commons license.

Tina Casey headshot

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.

Read more stories by Tina Casey