Two Palantir Profiles: Some Peculiar Omissions

October 26, 2020

Not long ago, I was interviewed for a “real” news story about Palantir which appeared in New York Magazine in late September 2020. That story — “Techie Software Soldier Spy: Palantir, Big Data’s scariest, most secretive unicorn, is going public. But is its crystal ball just smoke and mirrors?” — was chock full of information about Palantir Technologies. [1] Alas, the New York Times’s reporter never called me, but what’s new? On Sunday, October 25, 2020, the Times’s profile “The All Seeing Eye: Palantir became a tech giant by helping governments and law enforcement decipher vast amounts of data. Is it dangerous to let this software know so much?” appeared in print. Yep, another “real” news report about the company, and this one has nifty graphics.

There are some similarities between the two write ups. First, the origin story of Palantir is similar. For practical purposes, they are close enough for horse shoes. What seems to have slipped through the cracks is the information the Silicon Valley-centric team formed around Peter Thiel has been ignored. Some of these “founders” are quite fascinating individuals. Palantir was less a seeing stone than a step beyond what is now IBM’s i2 Analyst’s Notebook, one of the grandpeople of today’s policeware and intelware systems. [2] The differences between Analyst’s Notebook and Palantir Gotham can still trigger inter-agency memo battles among LE and intel professionals. But in terms of functionality, both ingest information and provide outputs useful to those interested in entities (banks, people, and other proper noun type things). Palantir anchored its system on techniques in use at a US intelligence agency more than a decade ago. i2 Ltd. based its approach around the work processes of UK law enforcement. Similar but different. Again, the differences are not germane beyond the point that i2 refined the use of software to assist UK LE. Palantir tailored an i2-type method for US intel professionals. That’s important to me and probably no one else.

Another similarity is that the theme of doing good runs through both write ups. Based on my limited knowledge, the “doing good” thing is indeed a factor for those working on Analyst’s Notebook and Palantir Gotham. Most people involved in LE and intel embrace the idea that bad actors can exert a negative influence on some society cohorts. Specialized software like i2 clones are useful, and they are not code confections I want to see available to bad actors. However, the “doing good” is often cheek by jowl with “making money.” Keeping control of proprietary features is also important. Plus, dropping a shroud over what these intelware systems can deliver is quite important in my opinion. Both write ups keep that shroud in place. That’s good.

A final similarity is the Lord of the Rings’ trope. The name Palantir, the seeing stone, the wonky fantastical terminology appear in both write ups. The angle of attack, however, is different in each story. The “real” journalist at the New York Times Magazine seems to have leaned heavily on what Alex Karp conveyed as the truth about himself and the company’s 17 year journal to the promised land of the IPO. The New York Magazine profile pulled information from Beltway insiders and old-fashioned research, none of that “we were classmates stuff.” Score one for New York Magazine team. But the net net is the same: Hard charging Palantirians labored to overcome established government contractors and won over the hearts and minds of LE and intel professionals.

When I reread both articles Sunday, October 25, 2020, I noted some factoids that did not appear in either write up. It is entirely possible that my 76 year old eyes missed or my creaky brain ignored some polished sentences. For that, I apologize.

Here’s what I noted as missing in action:

  1. I recall mentioning a couple of historical item’s about Palantir’s stroll to its IPO. Neither of these items merited inclusion in the final version of the article which was published and disseminated online. Did the New York Times’s journalist fail to uncover or elect to discard these events?
  2. Palantir’s method of working around established US government procurement procedures. Sure, there are references to providing software to those in theater, but that’s a darned important fact. It’s a bit like “move fast and break things” methods which have delivered the fine environment in which Silicon Valley companies thrive. i2, on the other hand, was and is a “play be the rules” outfit. That approach has been maintained by IBM even as today’s owner of Analyst Notebook has been unable to keep pace with other, more zippy investigative software solutions.
  3. Palantir ended up in court over the Dot ANB file format. This was a trade secret of i2 Ltd. I know because I did some tiny, unimportant work for i2 before it was sold off by its founder. In order to import Dot ANB files into Gotham, the seeing stone outfit needed a short cut. Palantirians found a semi-clever way to obtain this file format information. i2 Ltd. found out about file format fancy dancing, and a court battle ensured. Information about the litigation is scant, but the hassle was settled out of court and the terms of the deal were sealed. Some information is available in this Reuters’ story. Odd that this important litigation escaped the attention of the “real” journalists. It provides some insight into the actions of the hard-charging Palantirians.
  4. Palantir also allowed itself to become embroiled in what I call the HBGary misstep. You can wade through the unfamiliar players and locate the references to Facebook data and Palantir in “ChamberLeaks: Military Contractors Palantir And Berico Under Scrutiny.” Since Palantir presents a corporate story about law and order, the HBGary incident suggests that “law” and “order” may have a different meaning to some Palantirians in the “shire.”

None of these stories has been given an X-ray procedure. Why? [3] The research and analysis required to make sense of interface similarities and differences, legal jousting about file formats, or deals among the specialized services companies that serve LE and intel professionals are not going to find their way into “real” media. Maybe one of the crack MBA mills will produce a motivated whiz kid who will explore these three topics. (Guess what? There are more to uncover.)

From my point of view, Palantir’s current origin story in both Karp tales is entertaining. But like the omissions about Google (another Silicon Valley paragon), the information no one “remembers” or bothers to unearth reveal more about the Palantirians and their organization than the creative revisionism now circulating. What about those protests in front of Palantir’s Palo Alto office? I think it is like people conveniently not remembering the Google Yahoo settlement regarding ad technology? 

To some Silicon Valley, “in the same dorm” outfits, the past and its impacts are irrelevant to the thumbtyping generation. The here and now is what matters. With some stakeholders rolling in dough, the past may not exist. 

What’s the history of policeware and intelware history tell us about the future of Palantir Technologies? I am no master of prediction. I can’t predict if I will be around to see the end of the pandemic or the end of the week for that mater. Let me pose some questions, which are what got Socrates terminated with extreme poeticism. 

  1. Will Palantir be able to generate sufficient sustainable revenue to produce a profit? Note: It’s been 17 years to lose only half a billion if the published data are accurate? Plus, there are dozens of startups chasing the same modest pool of whales known to consume policeware and intelware.
  2. Will Palantir be able to catch up with vendors of intelligence software systems which have leapfrogged Gotham? (My estimates suggest there are about 300 customers on the scale of the CIA globally, and newcomers like some startups in Herzliya and suburban Virginia who are a heck of a lot less expensive to license, support, and tune. Deals with the fish bigger than carp are locked up and not in play. Some countries want their own equivalent to Analyst’s Notebook and Palantir Gotham. A deal may be unlikely no matter how much high school French a Silicon Valley pitch person uses in a presentation in Paris. There is competition today. In the late 1990s, Analyst’s Notebook faced fewer competitive threats.)
  3. Will Palantir, even with its move from Silicon Valley, become a Denver-type company with all the healthy goodness of a firm breathing fresh mountain air and rooting for the Broncos? Note: You can take the people out of Silicon Valley, but removing the Silicon Valley DNA may be like beating down Covid 19.

The Lord of the Rings was a fantasy if I recall a painful reading assignment from a class taught at the one-horse university I attended. I think this observation is semi-accurate: Where Palantir is concerned, magic and a rainbow are necessary. Some financially savvy humans are helpful as well.

The reality of Palantir’s dogged slog for 17 years is a bit more banal despite the “with it” persona of its public-facing wizard. The glow of that seeing stone’s glow is sufficiently bright to make it possible to read the digits on those cash accounts. What else is necessary?

Stephen E Arnold, October 26, 2020

Blog notes:

  1. i2 Ltd. was sold to a venture firm. Then IBM bought i2. Today’s Analyst’s Notebook is called “IBM i2 Analyst’s Notebook.”
  2. The “lack of context” about competition, market size, revenue, and number of  customers is fascinating. But neither writer had room for such irrelevancies. 
  3. My question is, “What is the logic of editorial decisions to omit factual actions about the business processes of Palantir Technologies?”

This Snooping Stuff

December 14, 2019

The Economist’s story “Offering Software for Snooping to Governments Is a Booming Business” sounds good. The article is locked behind a paywall so you will have to sign up to read the quite British analysis. There are some interesting comments zipping around about the article. For example, a useful thread appears at this link.

Several observations struck me as informative; for example:

  • The Economist does not mention Cisco. This is important because Cisco has an “intelligence” capability with some useful connections to innovators in other countries.
  • Palantir, a recipient of another US government contract, is not mentioned in the write up. For information about this new Palantir project, navigate to “Palantir Wins New Pentagon Deal With $111 Million From the Army.” This is paywalled as well.
  • There is even a reference to surveillance technology delivering a benefit.

Perhaps those interested in surveillance software will find the interview Robert Steele, a former CIA professional, conducted with me. You can find that information at this link.

Perhaps the Economist will revisit this topic and move beyond NSO Group and colloquial language like snooping?

Stephen E Arnold

Palantir Technologies: Fund Raising Signal

September 6, 2019

Palantir Technologies offers products and services which serve analysts and investigators. The company was founded in 2003, and it gained some traction in a number of US government agencies. The last time I checked for Palantir’s total funding, my recollection is that the firm has ingested about $2 billion from a couple dozen funding rounds. If you subscribe to Crunchbase, you can view that service’s funding round up. An outfit known as Growjo reports that Palantir has 2,262 employees. That works out cash intake of $884,173 per employee. Palantir is a secretive outfit, so who knows about funding, the revenue, the profits or losses, and the number of full time equivalents, contractors, etc. But Palantir is one of the highest profile companies in the law enforcement, regulatory, and intelligence sectors.

I read “Palantir to Seek Funding on Private Market, Delay IPO” and noted this statement:

The company has never turned an annual profit.

Bloomberg points out that customization of the system is expensive. Automation is a priority. Sales cycles are lengthy. And some stakeholders and investors are critical of the company.

Understandable. After 16 years and allegedly zero profits, annoyance is likely to surface in the NYAC after an intense game of squash.

But I am not interested in Palantir. The information about Palantir strikes me as germane to the dozens upon dozens of Palantir competitors. Consider these questions:

  1. Intelligence, like enterprise search, requires software and services that meet the needs of users who have quite particular work processes. Why pay lots of money to customize something that will have to be changed when a surprise event tips over established procedures? Roll your own? Look for the lowest cost solution?
  2. With so many competitors, how will government agencies be able to invest in a wide range of solutions. Why not seek a single source solution and find ways to escape from the costs of procuring, acquiring, tuning, training, and changing systems? If Palantir was the home run, why haven’t Palantir customers convinced their peers and superiors to back one solution? That hasn’t happened, which makes an interesting statement in itself. Why isn’t Palantir the US government wide solution the way Oracle was a few years ago?
  3. Are the systems outputting useful, actionable information. Users of these systems who give talks at LE and intel conferences are generally quite positive. But the reality is that cyber problems remain and have not been inhibited by Palantir and similar tools or the raft of cyber intelligence innovations from companies in the UK, Germany, Israel, and China. What’s the problem? Staff turnover, complexity, training cost, reliability of outputs?

Net net: Palantir’s needing money is an interesting signal. Stealth, secrecy, good customer support, and impressive visuals of networks of bad actors — important. But maybe — just maybe — the systems are ultimately not working as advertised. Sustainable revenues, eager investors, and a home run product equivalent to Facebook or Netflix — nowhere to be found. Yellow lights are flashing in DarkCyber’s office for some intelware vendors.

Stephen E Arnold, September 6, 2019

Palantir Technologies: Soldiering Forward

July 16, 2019

On the positive side, Palantir Technologies landed a $144 million blanket purchase agreement from the US Navy. Presumably, Palantir will provide its government-centric investigation and intelligence analysis system and engineering services. According to GovConWire:

The fixed-price BPA [blanket purchase agreement] has a one-year base term valued at $27.6M and four option years that could run through July 11, 2024.

IBM, Oracle, and other traditional intelware vendors are unlikely to be thrilled with the award.

On the negative side, Liberation, an online information service, reported that protests were held in Palo Alto. The group wants Palantir to be shut down. This is a dramatic statement, and it is not going to stop Palantir from licensing its technology to government agencies.

So, good news and bad news for Palantir. DarkCyber believes the company will focus on staying open and closing deals. Competitive systems are proliferating, and some of the newer systems are easier to use and eliminate some of the fussiness associated with the ageing Gotham system.

Stephen E Arnold, July 16, 2019

Palantir Technologies: The Winding Down of DCGS and the Winding Up of Old School Intelware Vendors

March 29, 2019

Update (March 30, 2019) to related to winding down: 

First Mercantile Trust Co Has Lowered By $390,609 Its Raytheon Company in DMinute

If you recognize the acronym “DCGS”,  you probably know that the Tolkien-infused intelware vendor Palantir Technologies has captured the $800 million contract for the US Army’s “new” intelligence system. If not, you won’t care.

According to “Palantir Wins Competition to Build Army Intelligence System,”:

The Army has chosen Palantir Technologies to deploy a complex battlefield intelligence system for soldiers, according to Army documents, a significant boost for a company that has attracted a devoted following in national security circles but had struggled to win a major defense contract.

The deal is important. A number of old school vendors have been chugging away on intelware for years. Vendors like Raytheon, IBM, Digital Reasoning, and dozens of others failed to deliver. Palantir, which is not without its share of issues, is going to provide war fighters with a more modern systems.

The fact that Palantir’s core software dates from 2003 suggests that more up to date systems are not in the cards for years to come. DarkCyber has picked  up rumors that big chunks of Palantir’s plumbing uses open source, plays semi-nice with legacy system file formats, and operates on the Amazon AWS infrastructure are important to war fighters. The possibility exists that Palantir Technologies can embrace and extend the functionality of its systems.

Does this procurement hint at any future big Pentagon contract announcements? Maybe.

Stephen E Arnold, March 29, 2019

Palantir Technologies and KT4 Partners: Information Decision

February 14, 2019

If you follow Palantir Technologies, there is a dust up between KT4 Partners and the producer of intelware; that is, software designed to provide intelligence solutions to licensees.

Like Palantir’s dispute with the original i2 Ltd., the details are difficult to discern due to the legal processes themselves, the desire of those involved to remain out of the spotlight, and the time lag between events.

If you do follow the legal machinations, you will want to read “Delaware Court Provides Guidance for Books and Records Demands to Limit Producing Electronic Data to Stockholders.”

I am not a lawyer and lawyers in general make me nervous; however, it appears that KT4 will be able to access certain documents to which Palantir has denied access.

Why’s this important?

Palantir and KT4 know that money is at stake. Expensive settlements may have an impact on Palantir’s IPO. Furthermore, documents may contain interesting information which could find its way into the media.

Worth monitoring this matter.

Stephen E Arnold, February 14, 2019

Bloomberg Continues to Needle Palantir Technologies

February 1, 2019

Buzzfeed once was a good source of anti-Palantir Technologies’ information. But change is constant. Now Bloomberg finds news in the company that tries to keep a low profile.

Palantir Technologies, as you may know, is a firm which is a search and retrieval system on steroids. One can use the system to find an entity amidst the process content. If search doesn’t work, the firm has bundled a range of software modules to identify those elusive facts an investigator, a financial analyst, or a drug researcher seeks.

Bloomberg’s “Palantir Slashes Its Own Stock Price to Boost Morale” reports that employees are a bit unhappy. The company is 15 years old, and not really a start up. The firm’s technology is a bit long in the tooth as well. Big systems are difficult to reengineer to keep up with the waves of newcomers. For example, I am not sure a comprehensive list of Palantir-like start ups in Israel exists. I have lists, but these are far from complete. Ever hear of Narrative Science?

The write up points out that Palantir’s high valuation has begun to slump, like the eyesight of a teen who has played video games for a decade every night for five hours in his or her bedroom.

The main point of the write up strikes at the soul of the Silicon Valley capitalist: “The stock adjustment raises an important question: What is Palantir worth?”

The answer is that search centric companies, regardless of how they are packaged, lack the ability to generate cash in the manner of Facebook, Google, or, praise the Austrian economists, Amazon.

This Bloomberg statement casts a shadow over Palantir and its management team:

Because Palantir typically offers lower salaries than many nearby tech companies, equity is a big part of the sell. But the stock options were overpriced, according to Palantir shareholders and prospective investors. All seven mutual funds that own Palantir shares have slashed the value of their holdings since their 2015 high of $11.38. SP Investments Management values Palantir at $7.87 a share as of September, the most recent data available. Morgan Stanley’s mutual funds have decreased prices seven times in three years, to $2.49.

Employee unrest, poaching of staff, and financial fancy dancing are routine in Silicon Valley. Why target Palantir? That’s a question which I find more interesting than why the company is trying to keep employees happy?

The answer, “Real news.”

Stephen E Arnold, February 1, 2019

Palantir Technologies: Keeping Momentum, Job One

November 29, 2018

Hop in your time machine and think back about five years. While it feels like the olden days of horse-drawn carriages already, it was a golden age for big data analytics startups. Tops on that list for many was Palantir. Thought, today things are much different, as we discovered in a recent Cheddar video, “Why Palantir’s Valuation is Withering Away.”

According to the article:

“Not long ago Palantir Technologies was valued at $20 billion and one of Silicon Valley’s brightest tech companies. Today, the big data analytics company’s worth has been slashed to $6 billion by Morgan Stanley as it heads towards an IPO.”

Perhaps part of the lag draws from Palantir’s secrecy, considering it works for organizations like the CIA and others.

However, stakeholders and employees still have big dreams like many other Silicon Valley shop: They want to go public.

A drop in valuation and concern over whether they can ever turn a profit is starting to seriously tarnish this once golden child of the tech industry.

Beyond Search does not want to draw parallels with Autonomy or other search centric firms. Some of these outfits found that the momentum of selling sizzle was difficult to maintain in a room with open windows.

Worth watching how this financial drama plays out as Amazon gears up to become the go to provider of policeware and possibly business intelligence services.

Patrick Roland, November 29, 2018

Thomson Reuters on a Privacy International Beat

November 26, 2018

I know that commercial database publishers can be profitable operations. But in order to keep pace with erosion of some traditional revenue streams, some professional publishers have been working to generate new databases which can be licensed to certain government agencies. In most cases, a researcher or librarian will not have these electronic files in their toolkit.

Privacy International published “Who Supplies the Data, Analysis, and Tech Infrastructure to US Immigration Authorities?” The report is available without charge, but I suggest that you download it promptly. Certain reports about some topics can go offline without notice.

I don’t want to dig through the references to references to Palantir. The information about that company is not particularly fresh. However, Privacy International has gathered some useful examples of Thomson Reuters’ products and services to law enforcement and other government agencies.

Privacy International seems unaware that many LE and intel entities routinely outsource work to third part, license a wide range of numeric and factual data, and tap into the talent pools at third party firms.

The Privacy International report does not provide much information about Thomson Reuters’ use of the Palantir technology. That might be an interesting topic for some young researcher to explore. We will do a short item about some of the Privacy International information in the DarkCyber for December 11, 2018.

Stephen E Arnold, November 26, 2018

Facebook: Collateral Damage?

May 17, 2018

The Cambridge Analytica/Facebook data scandal has rightly been scrutinized by everyone from individual users to entire government bodies. As could be expected when the players are this large, what people are finding links together unlikely suspects and victims in this data breach. One such surprise popped up this week when we read a Gizmodo report, “Facebook ‘Looking Into’ Palantir’s Access to User Data.”

According to the story:

“The inquiry was led by Damian Collins, chair of Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Committee. According to CNBC, Collins asked if Palantir was part of Facebook’s “review work.”

“While it’s unclear if it gained access to the Facebook user data that Cambridge Analytica harvested, Palantir’s connection to the social network extends beyond any potential collaboration with Cambridge Analytica. Peter Thiel, a Facebook board member, is a Palantir co-founder.”

We aren’t sure what the big data powerhouse Palantir knew or didn’t know, but if they are found to have violated laws it could get ugly. And the ugliness doesn’t seem to know any depths in this case. Take for example, the recent news that Cambridge Analytica’s data could be up for sale since the company declared bankruptcy after the data breach news tanked the company. Buckle up, because we don’t think the dominoes are done falling yet.

Patrick Roland, May 17, 2018

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