Techie Software Soldier Spy

Palantir, Big Data’s scariest, most secretive unicorn, is going public. But is its crystal ball just smoke and mirrors?

Palantir’s public offering is founded on the company’s sales pitch that its software represents the ultimate tool of surveillance. Named after the “Seeing Stones” in The Lord of the Rings, Palantir is designed to ingest the mountains of data collected by soldiers and spies and police — fingerprints, signals intelligence, bank records, tips from confidential informants — and enable users to spot hidden relationships, uncover criminal and terrorist networks, and even anticipate future attacks. Thiel and Karp have effectively positioned Palantir as a pro-military arm of Silicon Valley, a culture dominated by tech gurus who view their work as paving the way for a global utopia. (Palantir declined to comment for this story, citing the mandatory “quiet period” prior to a public listing.)

It’s a strange moment, given the widespread alarm over the ever-expanding reach of technology, for a tech company to be marketing itself as the most powerful weapon in the national-security state’s arsenal — wrapping itself in what one Silicon Valley veteran calls “the mystique of being used to kill people.” But as Palantir seeks to sell its stock on Wall Street, even some of its initial admirers are warning that the company’s software may not live up to its hype. More than a dozen former military and intelligence officials I interviewed — some of whom were instrumental in persuading government agencies to work with Palantir — expressed concerns about the firm’s penchant for exaggeration, its apparent flouting of federal rules designed to ensure fair competition, and its true worth. The company has largely succeeded, they say, not because of its technological wizardry but because its interface is slicker and more user friendly than the alternatives created by defense contractors.

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