Palantir Technologies: A First for a Content Processing Outfit

January 18, 2017

Palantir Technologies visibility has an upside and a downside. The upside is that the company’s brand, its Gotham system, and its Metropolis are gaining traction among executives in a range of disciplines, not just the heady world of Wall Street or the less well travelled pathways of law enforcement and intelligence professionals.

I read “Tech Workers Are Protesting Palantir’s Involvement with Immigration Data.” If accurate, the write up is one of the first reports of people getting antsy about systems and methods which are going on 30 years old. FYI I did a tiny bit of work for i2 Group, the outfit which developed Analyst’s Notebook in the 1990s. That system used techniques known to researchers in the UK, France, and elsewhere for decades. The point is that the “protest” is something that companies involved in data analysis have not experienced. I am not bringing a dog to this fight. I think it is intersting that awareness of what one can accomplish using graph analysis, centuries old math, and basic information access methods is now triggering what may be a potentially contentious public protest. (Get those permits, folks.)

The write up points out:

As Trump prepares to take office, a Silicon Valley group demands Palantir account for systems that could be used for mass deportation.

From elected officials who disavow the president elect to skilled professionals who are worried about what the president elect “may” do, search and content processing has only rarely faced a group of concerned people. Even Autonomy, an early player with BAE Systems in data analysis for government tasks, is essentially invisible despite a high profile lawsuit with Hewlett Packard. There was a protest more than a decade ago in front of Autonomy’s Cambridge offices, but I can’t recall why a group of about a dozen people showed up and then dispersed. Outfits like FinFisher or Vupen make news in specialist publications. The idea of a mass protest in front of the Gamma Group offices in the UK is a rare event.

The Palantir to-be protest reported in the article pivots on what might happen in the future. Future reporting is an interesting genre. The write up states:

Due in part to a Verge report from last month, a group of tech workers in Silicon Valley has announced that it will hold a demonstration outside the headquarters of Palantir Technologies in Palo Alto next Wednesday to protest the company’s involvement in intelligence systems used by federal immigration authorities.

The news service takes some credit as a catalyst and writes about what will happen on Wednesday, January 18, 2017, in a write up published online on January 13, 2017. (Where are these folks at Kentucky Derby time when I have to pick a horse for the big race?)

I learned (I think this is the correct tense for writing about reporting the future):

We want to make it clear that the overall tech community is watching what Palantir does,” says Jason Prado, a software engineer at Facebook and member of the Tech Workers Coalition, the group organizing the Palantir demonstration. “And we want to hold the tech community overall accountable for the values that we as a community have.”

The write up does some more tense dancing with this statement in the write up:

This week, both Thiel and Palantir’s CEO, Alex Karp, separately pledged that Palantir will not be used to build a Muslim registry — a demand listed by Prado’s group. “We think that’s fantastic,” says Prado, “but we’re also interested in their possible involvement in what we see as mass deportation and we plan to continue pushing on that.”

More interesting for me was or is this statement in the write up:

Last month, I reported for The Verge that Palantir had provided largely-secret assistance to the US Customs and Border Protection agency in administering a complex intelligence platform known as the Analytical Framework for Intelligence, or AFI, which collects and analyzes troves of information on immigrants and other travelers entering, exiting, and moving within the United States.

The “I” refers to Spencer Woodman, who is both a trigger and a documenter of the present and the future.

The president elect seems to know about Palantir’s platform or “Analytical Framework for Intelligence.” I interpret Palantir’s approach as a series of components which go beyond what the 1990s-anchored i2 system does.

The write up by Mr. Woodman states:

Last month, I also reported that Palantir had signed a $34,650,000 in contracts with ICE to help build and maintain a large database and analytics platform called FALCON, which contains employment information, criminal records, immigration history, family connections, as well as home and work addresses. According to Department of Homeland Security oversight documents, FALCON is meant for use by ICE’s Office of Homeland Security Investigations, which pursues serious cross-border crimes such as human trafficking, drug interdiction, and child pornography and is a separate entity from ERO. Tasked with enforcing unverified employment, HSI has conducted some of ICE’s most controversial recentimmigration raids on businesses employing undocumented Immigrants — the sort of operations that many immigrant advocates fear will expand under Trump.

From my point of view, I made a mental note of several points:

  1. The article or wrtie up as I term these online news/opinion/commentary essays makes it clear that what will happen in the future is due in part to the information presented in the author’s articles present and past. That’s very interesting.
  2. The technology revealed as a source of concern is, at least to me, very old news. There are newer and more more effective systems than those offered by Palantir. (No, I will not identify these vendors nor will I respond to email or telephone inquiries on these matters unless the call comes from a present or former client or via a referral from a trusted source. Do your own homework, gentle reader.) Palantir acquiores companies because it must or has to juice up is decade old system.
  3. The blurred role of the author and the write up as a “report” and a “prediction” makes it difficult for me to know why the article is not labeled as content marketing. I made a mental sticky note, however.

I think the assembly/protest is worth monitoring. I look forward to more “real” journalism on this matter. Frankly mixing up what did happen, what is happening, and what will happen in the future is somewhat confusing to me. I prefer a nice tidy timeline and outputs from a predictive analytics system like Record Future’s to help me make decisions about an event. I am also interested in making bubble gum cards for the individuals of interest, generating a graph of relationships, and pumping open source content through a series of text analysis procedures.

That, hoowever, is a great deal of work. I can understand why some “real” journalists prefer a phone call or two, some self referntial links, and Google Web searches when writing about what will happen on Janaury 18 five or more days before the 18th.

Stephen E Arnold, January 18, 2017


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