Picking and Poking Palantir Technologies: A New Blood Sport?

April 25, 2018

My reaction to “Palantir Has Figured Out How to Make Money by Using Algorithms to Ascribe Guilt to People, Now They’re Looking for New Customers” is a a sign and a groan.

I don’t work for Palantir Technologies, although I have been a consultant to one of its major competitors. I do lecture about next generation information systems at law enforcement and intelligence centric conferences in the US and elsewhere. I also wrote a book called “CyberOSINT: Next Generation Information Access.” That study has spawned a number of “experts” who are recycling some of my views and research. A couple of government agencies have shortened by word “cyberosint” into the “cyint.” In a manner of speaking, I have an information base which can be used to put the actions of companies which offer services similar to those available from Palantir in perspective.

The article in Boing Boing falls into the category of “yikes” analysis. Suddenly, it seems, the idea that cook book mathematical procedures can be used to make sense of a wide range of data. Let me assure you that this is not a new development, and Palantir is definitely not the first of the companies developing applications for law enforcement and intelligence professionals to land customers in financial and law firms.

baseball card part 5

A Palantir bubble gum card shows details about a person of interest and links to underlying data from which the key facts have been selected. Note that this is from an older version of Palantir Gotham. Source: Google Images, 2015

Decades ago, a friend of mine (Ev Brenner, now deceased) was one of the pioneers using technology and cook book math to make sense of oil and gas exploration data. How long ago? Think 50 years.

The focus of “Palantir Has Figured Out…” is that:

Palantir seems to be the kind of company that is always willing to sell magic beans to anyone who puts out an RFP for them. They have promised that with enough surveillance and enough secret, unaccountable parsing of surveillance data, they can find “bad guys” and stop them before they even commit a bad action.

Okay, that sounds good in the context of the article, but Palantir is just one vendor responding to the need for next generation information access tools from many commercial sectors.

What is Palantir supposed to do? Government funding, though available, is insufficient to fund the R&D, bug fixes, and application development cyberOSINT systems require. If the government funding cycle consumes a year or more, companies have to generate revenue. There are investors, but decade old “start ups” have a tough time convincing some investors to pump in more cash. Licensing deals make sense in some cases. For example, Thomson Reuters once fiddled with a service based on Palantir’s technology. I have lost track of that initiative, but Thomson Reuters obviously knew that it needed more oats in its feedbag to deal with outfits like Bloomberg and Factset.

Companies largely dependent on the perceived success of IBM Watson like Digital Reasoning have been working hard to land customers for that Tennessee company’s advanced intelligence system. If one bothers to look, most of the intel centric vendors have commercial divisions. An entire industry has flowered around the need to identify bad actors within organizations and avoid the pain of non compliance with certain government regulations. Want to know how these systems work? Do a bit of checking and get up to speed, gentle reader. Palantir’s technology lags behind the market leaders in this fast growing security market.

What is the purpose of the Boing Boing story?

I have three hypotheses which could, I suppose, answer the question:

  1. Palantir is a big fat sitting duck. The company has a track record of skating on the edge of its John Wilson blade; for example, the dust up with i2 Ltd over the ANB file format. Beating a big fat sitting duck is, I assume, “real” journalism.
  2. Palantir has become a symbol for what cook book math applied to available data can allegedly do. Nothing is more impressive to some people than looking at a link analysis which shows that a certain person interacted with another person at a certain time in a specific manner. Those viewing the visual form of a link analysis can easily figure out that Person A (an employee) is interacting about a specific secret subject with a bad actor (outside investor once charged with stock fraud). The response to this type of analysis is dramatic and often leads to immediate, direct action. Why not make the symbolic company the token for this type of data analysis? Yep, why not?
  3. The shockwave of the Facebook Cambridge Analytica matter creates a fertile strip of digital land on which one can direct a stream of assertions about cook book math.

Without a reasonable understanding of the tools, systems and solutions available from vendors in Sweden, the UK, the US, Australia, and other countries—focusing on Palantir Technologies reveals a lack of understanding about the scope, maturity, and capabilities of systems available today.

In fact, there is a vendor which offers an open source version of Palantir Technologies’ basic functions. Right, yes. I understand. You did not know. Real journalists have the information they need to convert use a company as a token for a galaxy of vendors about which they know little or nothing.

Palantir, you are a symbol now. That’s not how cyberOSINT see its, however.

Stephen E Arnold, April 25, 2018

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