Palantir Technologies: Recycling Day Old Hash

July 31, 2017

I read “Palantir: The Special Ops Tech Giant That Wields As Much Real World Power as Google.” I noticed these hot buttons here:

“Special ops” for the Seal Team 6 vibe. Check.

“Wields” for the notion of great power. Check.

“Real world.” A reminder of the here and now, not an airy fairy digital wonkiness. Check.

“Google.” Yes. Palantir as potent as the ad giant Google. Check.

That’s quite a headline.

The write up itself is another journalistic exposé of software which ingests digital information and outputs maps, reports, and visualizations. Humans index too. Like the i2 Analyst Notebook, the “magic” is mostly external. Making these Fancy Dan software systems work requires computers, of course. Humans are needed too. Trained humans are quite important, essential, in fact.

The Guardian story seems to be a book review presented as a Gladwell-like revisionist anecdote. See, for example, Done: The Secret Deals That Are Changing Our World by Jacques Peretti (Hodder & Stoughton, £20). You can buy a copy from (Online ad? Maybe?)

Read the Palantir story which stuffed my Talkwalker alert with references to the article. Quite a few bloggers are recycling the Guardian newspaper story. Buzzfeed’s coverage of the Palo Alto company evoked the same reaction. I will come back to the gaps in these analyses in a moment.

The main point of the Guardian’s July 30, 2017, story strikes me as:

Palantir tracks everyone from potential terrorist suspects to corporate fraudsters…child traffickers, and what they refer to as subversives. But it all done using prediction.

Right. Everyone! Potential terrorist suspects! And my favorite “all”. Using “prediction” no less.

Sounds scary. I am not sure the platforms work with the type of reliability that the word “all” suggests. But this is about selling books, not Palantir and similar companies’ functionality, statistical methods, or magical content processing. Confusing Hollywood with reality is easy today: At least for some folks.

Palantir licenses software to organizations. Palantir is an “it,” not a they. The company uses the lingo of its customers. Subversives is one term, but it is more suggestive in my opinion than “bad actor,” “criminal,” “suspect,” or terrorist.” I think the word “tracks” is pivotal. Palantir’s professionals, like Pathfinder, look at deer tracks and nails the beastie. I want to point out that “prediction”—partly the Bayesian, Monte Carlo, and Markovian methods pioneered by Autonomy in the mid 1990s—is indeed used for certain processes. What’s omitted is that Palantir is just one company in the content processing and search and retrieval game. I am not convinced that its systems and methods are the best ones available today. (Check out Recorded Future, a Google and In-Q-Tel funded company for some big league methods. And there are others. In my CyberOSINT book and my Dark Web Notebook I identify about two dozen companies providing similar services. Palantir is one, admittedly high profile example, of next generation information access providers.

The write up does reveal at the end of the article that the Guardian is selling Jacque Peretti’s book. That’s okay. What’s operating under the radar is a book promo that seems to be one thing but is, in the real world, a nifty book promotion.

In closing, the information presented in the write up struck me as a trifle stale. I am okay with collections of information that have been assembled to make it easy for a reader to get the gist of a system quickly. My Dark Web Notebook is a Cliff’s Notes about what one Tor executive suggests does not exist.

When I read about Palantir, I look for information about:

  • Technical innovations within Gotham and Palantir’s other “products”
  • Details about the legal dust up between i2 and Palantir regarding file formats, an issue which has some here and now relevance with the New York police department’s Palantir experience
  • Interface methods which are designed to make it easier to perform certain data analysis functions
  • Specifics about the data loading, file conversion, and pre-processing index tasks and how these impact timeliness of the information in the systems
  • Issues regarding data reconciliation when local installs lose contact with cloud resources within a unit and across units
  • Financial performance of the company as it relates to stock held by stakeholders and those who want the company to pursue an initial public offering
  • What are the specific differences among systems on offer from BAE, Textron, and others with regards to Palantir Gotham?

Each time I read about Palantir these particular items seem to be ignored. Perhaps these are not sufficiently sexy or maybe getting the information is a great deal of work? The words “hash” and “rehash” come to my mind as one way to create something that seems filling but may be empty calories. Perhaps a “real journalist” will tackle some of the dot points. That would be more interesting than a stale reference to special effects in a star vehicle.

NB. I was an adviser to i2 Group Ltd., the outfit that created the Analyst’s Notebook.

Stephen E Arnold, July 31, 2017


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