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Killer App
Comments () | Published January 31, 2012

In the fall of 2010, Palantir employees partnered with an ex–Navy intelligence analyst named Aaron Barr, the new CEO of HBGary Federal, which specialized in identifying computer viruses, on an ill-conceived project that carried the promise of big money—but also a lot of risk.

Palantir and HBGary Federal teamed up with a third intelligence contractor, Berico Technologies, to provide information on groups and individuals deemed hostile to the US Chamber of Commerce. The law firm Hunton & Williams first approached Palantir about the work, which was to include reconnaissance of various Web sites and social media in order to build dossiers on the chamber’s opponents. Operating under the name Team Themis, the companies would set up an analysis cell to provide the law firm with intelligence about “adversarial entities and networks of interest,” according to a proposal the team drew up. Palantir would “serve as the foundation for all of the data collection, integration, analysis, and production efforts.”

For its work, Palantir asked to be paid $1.1 million. Anticipating that its client might balk at such a price, Matthew Steckman, a Palantir employee in the Rivendell Washington office, wrote an e-mail to his teammates urging them to emphasize, “We are the best money can buy! Dam it feels good to be a gangsta.”

A few days later, the law firm asked Team Themis whether it could offer a proposal for another job, this time targeting the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, which was threatening to release internal records from Bank of America. As Steckman explained to his team, the bank wanted to sue WikiLeaks and enjoin it from releasing the information.

The Justice Department, which had been looking for a way to prosecute WikiLeaks’ founder, Julian Assange, called Bank of America’s attorneys and told them to get in touch with Hunton & Williams. “Apparently, if they can show that WikiLeaks is hosting data in certain countries, it will make prosecution easier,” Steckman wrote.

Barr said that Themis should target WikiLeaks’ “global following and volunteer staff” as well as people donating money to the group. “Also need to get people to understand that if they support the organization we will come after them. Transaction records are easily identifiable.” He said they should submit fake documents to WikiLeaks and try to foment distrust among different camps of supporters. Barr also suggested they target “people like Glenn Greenwald,” the progressive blogger who was a vocal WikiLeaks supporter. And he wanted to launch “cyberattacks” on a server WikiLeaks used in Sweden in order to “get data” about people who were anonymously submitting information.

Team Themis never got the chance to carry out its campaign of espionage and propaganda. In February 2011, an article appeared in the Financial Times quoting Barr, who bragged that he’d been able to penetrate the inner ranks of another hacker-activist group, Anonymous. The group retaliated by breaking into Barr’s e-mail account and publishing years’ worth of his correspondence, which included the Team Themis proposals.

“It’s not that we give people a long leash at Palantir. There are no leashes here at Palantir.”

For Palantir, a company founded on the idea that technology should protect personal freedoms, it was a humiliating revelation. Palantir risked looking like a cybermercenary. That image ran counter to the core values of the company, yet it was one of those values that allowed the Team Themis work to be considered in the first place.

Karp was apparently unaware of what his subordinates had been doing. Palantir has what Karp calls a “flat hierarchy”: Employees are encouraged to act like entrepreneurs and not to seek approval for every decision they make. Karp says this structure is essential to Palantir’s success: “No company in the Bay Area is disruptive with multiple layers of hierarchy.” That concept, of course, is anathema to Washington.

“It’s not that we give people a long leash at Palantir,” David Worn, a former intelligence analyst Karp hired to open the Tysons Corner office, explained to a technology blog in 2010. “There are no leashes here at Palantir.”

Palantir placed Steckman on leave pending a review of his action. Barr resigned from HBGary Federal. Karp ended all contacts with HBGary and issued a statement apologizing to “progressive organizations . . . for any involvement that we may have had in these matters.”

Karp says Palantir hired the law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner to investigate the company’s role in Team Themis. It recommended that Palantir keep Steckman as an employee, which Karp says he did.

Some in the progressive circles that Karp identifies with now view the company as a sinister force that needs to be checked. What’s to stop a government intelligence agency from turning off Palantir’s privacy-protection features and using the software for illicit purposes? Karp insists that the controls are “very hard to circumvent” and that it would take a “world-class software team” to do it.

He doesn’t cite an example, but it’s hard to resist the thought that one agency Palantir employees claim hold it in high regard—the National Security Agency—would have both the skill and the motivation to modify Palantir for its own purposes. The agency employs the largest and most skilled cadre of software experts in the government. And for more than four years after the 9/11 attacks, it conducted a secret campaign of electronic surveillance against US citizens that bypassed federal courts. NSA also took over many of John Poindexter’s Total Information Awareness programs after they were officially shut down, but it rejected one: building privacy-enhancing technology into computer software. In congressional testimony, NSA’s director, General Keith Alexander, said the agency has examined Palantir’s software and that it could be useful for cybersecurity.

Over time, the cultural distinctions between employees in Palo Alto and Tysons Corner have become more pronounced, in turn affecting the company. Palantir is neither of the Valley nor entirely of the Beltway. It’s a kind of techno-military hybrid. In Tysons, there are predictable trappings of a start-up—a pool table, a fleet of Razor scooters, an amply stocked kitchen—but there are also employees wearing desert boots and customers in camouflage fatigues. The denizens of Rivendell are more likely to have come from the Korengal Valley than from Silicon Valley.

Palantir, like so many government contractors, has installed a Washington-style revolving door. It recruits employees from among the ranks of its customers. Most of its “embedded analysts,” employees who work on high-priority national-security threats, are former users from the military and intelligence community. A job description on Palantir’s Web site describes the ideal embedded analyst this way: “Although you loathe the bureaucracy, you have a deeply held belief that a revolution in intelligence affairs is not only possible, it is imminent. Help us craft that revolution.”

It’s hard to escape the suspicion that Palantir has created more of a cult than a culture. Karp—whom employees call Dr. Karp—insists they’ve built “a real culture that’s not based on money.” Palantir caps all salaries at $127,000, which is what Karp earns. Employees are compensated with bonuses and equity stakes, but most of the engineers could make much bigger salaries if they defected for Facebook or Google. If someone goes to work for Palantir, it’s probably because he or she believes in Palantir and its mission. As naive or unsettling as that mindset may seem, it’s aligned with a credo of public service found more often in the government than in its contractors. Karp is inclined to keep things that way, and despite Palantir’s obvious trajectory toward an initial public offering of stock in the near future, he says, “I don’t want an IPO. The minute you have it, people wake up and ask, ‘How rich am I?’ ”

Perhaps sensing the damage to its reputation from the Team Themis project, Palantir has resorted to more traditional tactics to strengthen its position in Washington. In 2011, it spent around $300,000 on wall-to-wall ads in Metro stations, including L’Enfant Plaza and Pentagon. This was likely the first introduction thousands of Washingtonians had to the shadowy company. Palantir employees gave more than $92,000 in campaign donations in the most recent election cycle, a record for the company.

Palantir has also stepped up its lobbying efforts. Last year, when the company was trying to gain entrée to an important Army program in Afghanistan, at least a half dozen members of Congress intervened and tried to strong-arm the military into giving Palantir a chance. The Army resisted and gave a contract to its chief competitor instead. But the fact that Palantir could so effectively persuade lawmakers shows it has learned to play hardball in Washington.

Today, some current and former government officials say Palantir’s star has dimmed in the intelligence community. They complain that the software has a hard time analyzing extremely large databases and that it takes a lot of time on the front end to arrange information in a format Palantir can use.

Still, Palantir has built what it claims, and despite its shortcomings, the technology has made significant contributions to solving some of the country’s most important national-security challenges. “The contradiction we wanted to remove was between civil liberties and fighting terrorism,” Karp said at a recent Palantir conference. “Do we really want to live in a world where everyone sees everything without any kind of permissions? Solving this problem . . . that’s a really cool idea.”

Security and liberty are competitors now. That’s not a natural condition; it’s a product of our time, of the decisions that we have all made—or failed to make—over the past decade. Could a piece of software allay that uneasy tension? Perhaps. But as any good student of Tolkien knows, whether a palantir is used for good or for evil depends on who’s holding the stone.

This article appears in the February 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.

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Posted at 11:00 AM/ET, 01/31/2012 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles