Is This Who Runs Prism?

June 7, 2013 3:57 a.m.
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I want to stress this is a reader email, not TPM reporting. But I’m sharing it because after reading it through and doing some googling of my own there’s little doubt that Palantir is doing stuff like what the government is doing with those tech companies, even if they’re not part of ‘prism’ itself. Give this a read.

From an anonymous reader …

I don’t see anyone out there with this theory, and TPM is my favorite news source, so here goes:

“PRISM” is the government’s name for a program that uses technology from Palantir. Palantir is a Silicon Valley start-up that’s now valued at well over $1B, that focuses on data analysis for the government. Here’s how Palantir describes themselves:

“We build software that allows organizations to make sense of massive amounts of disparate data. We solve the technical problems, so they can solve the human ones. Combating terrorism. Prosecuting crimes. Fighting fraud. Eliminating waste. From Silicon Valley to your doorstep, we deploy our data fusion platforms against the hardest problems we can find, wherever we are needed most.”

They’re generally not public about who their clients are, but their first client was famously the CIA, who is also an early investor.

With my theory in mind, re-read the denials from the tech companies in the WSJ (emphasis mine):
Apple: “We do not provide any government agency with direct access to our servers…”
Google: “… does not have a ‘back door’ for the government to access private user data…”
Facebook: “… not provide any government organization with direct access to Facebook servers…”
Yahoo: “We do not provide the government with direct access to our servers, systems, or network…”

These denials could all still be technically true if the government is accessing the data through a government contractor, such as Palantir, rather than having direct access.

I just did a quick Google search of “Palantir PRISM” to see if anyone else had this theory, and the top results were these pages:

Apparently, Palantir has a software package called “Prism”: “Prism is a software component that lets you quickly integrate external databases into Palantir.” That sounds like exactly the tool you’d want if you were trying to find patterns in data from multiple companies.

So the obvious follow-up questions are of the “am I right?” variety, but if I am, here’s what I really want to know: which Palantir clients have access to this data? Just CIA & NSA? FBI? What about municipalities, such as the NYC police department? What about the governments of other countries?

What do you think?

FWIW, I know a guy who works at Palantir. I asked him what he/they did once, and he was more secretive than my friends at Apple.

PS, please don’t use my name if you decide to publish any of this — it’s a small town/industry. Let them Prism me instead.

Late Update: Another reader notes that Bridgewater Associates LLP, one of the largest hedge funds in the world, is also a major client of Palantir, which appears to be confirmed by many press reports.

Later Update: Here’s a video of Alexander Karp, CEO of Palantir, describing what the company does …

Yet More Update: For yet more of a sense of what Palantir does for the US government, here’s a hypothetical of what they make possible for counter-terrorism analysts in the US intel committee, as described in a 2011 article in Bloomberg …

In October, a foreign national named Mike Fikri purchased a one-way plane ticket from Cairo to Miami, where he rented a condo. Over the previous few weeks, he’d made a number of large withdrawals from a Russian bank account and placed repeated calls to a few people in Syria. More recently, he rented a truck, drove to Orlando, and visited Walt Disney World by himself. As numerous security videos indicate, he did not frolic at the happiest place on earth. He spent his day taking pictures of crowded plazas and gate areas.

None of Fikri’s individual actions would raise suspicions. Lots of people rent trucks or have relations in Syria, and no doubt there are harmless eccentrics out there fascinated by amusement park infrastructure. Taken together, though, they suggested that Fikri was up to something. And yet, until about four years ago, his pre-attack prep work would have gone unnoticed. A CIA analyst might have flagged the plane ticket purchase; an FBI agent might have seen the bank transfers. But there was nothing to connect the two. Lucky for counterterror agents, not to mention tourists in Orlando, the government now has software made by Palantir Technologies, a Silicon Valley company that’s become the darling of the intelligence and law enforcement communities.

The day Fikri drives to Orlando, he gets a speeding ticket, which triggers an alert in the CIA’s Palantir system. An analyst types Fikri’s name into a search box and up pops a wealth of information pulled from every database at the government’s disposal. There’s fingerprint and DNA evidence for Fikri gathered by a CIA operative in Cairo; video of him going to an ATM in Miami; shots of his rental truck’s license plate at a tollbooth; phone records; and a map pinpointing his movements across the globe. All this information is then displayed on a clearly designed graphical interface that looks like something Tom Cruise would use in a Mission: Impossible movie.

As the CIA analyst starts poking around on Fikri’s file inside of Palantir, a story emerges. A mouse click shows that Fikri has wired money to the people he had been calling in Syria. Another click brings up CIA field reports on the Syrians and reveals they have been under investigation for suspicious behavior and meeting together every day over the past two weeks. Click: The Syrians bought plane tickets to Miami one day after receiving the money from Fikri. To aid even the dullest analyst, the software brings up a map that has a pulsing red light tracing the flow of money from Cairo and Syria to Fikri’s Miami condo. That provides local cops with the last piece of information they need to move in on their prey before he strikes.

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