Palantir has been described by the Guardian as a ‘special ops tech giant that wields as much real-world power as Google’. It hoovers up and analyses vast quantities of online data – including personal and social media data and online browsing histories – and sells this on to be used for a variety of corporate and political purposes.
Palantir personnel are alleged to have worked closely with Cambridge Analytica to develop the data-driven psychometrics used to target voters during the Brexit and Trump campaigns. In testimony to the House of Commons Digital Culture Media and Sport Committee, Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie described how: ‘There was not an official contract between Palantir and Cambridge Analytica but there were Palantir staff that would come into the office and work on the data.’ After initially denying this, Palantir stated that one of its employees had worked with Cambridge Analytica ‘in an entirely personal capacity’.
One of Palantir’s shareholders is Field Marshall Lord Guthrie, the former head of the UK armed forces who played a prominent role in the Brexit campaign as the figurehead of Veterans for Britain.
Founded by the PayPal billionaire and far-right libertarian Peter Thiel in 2004, Palantir’s first contracts were with the CIA and the Pentagon in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also formed a close link with the investment bank J. P. Morgan, one of the company’s major investors. The software it developed for the bank was not just used for financial analysis, but also to apply a Big Brother level of surveillance to the bank’s employees.
Bloomberg has described how a Palantir team at the bank ‘vacuumed up emails and browser histories, GPS locations from company-issued smartphones, printer and download activity, and transcripts of digitally recorded phone conversations. Palantir’s software aggregated, searched, sorted, and analysed these records, surfacing keywords and patterns of behaviour. Any “irregularities” that it spotted would “trigger further scrutiny and possibly physical surveillance after hours by bank security personnel”‘.
Thiel is on record stating: ‘I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.’ By ‘freedom’, Thiel meant unfettered capitalism: ‘Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women — two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians — have rendered the notion of “capitalist democracy” into an oxymoron.’
Thiel’s extremist version of capitalism has seemed to some observers to verge on fascism. He has written: ‘The fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism.’
Thiel appears to see himself as that person. Palantir’s role in this enterprise has been to place the enormous power of big data in the hands of people and organisations who have demonstrated that they are more than happy to use it to undermine the integrity of the democratic process.
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