AI giant Palantir on a quest to help the West

December 31, 2023
Palantir's full-page ad for Israel in the New York Times in October. Photo: supplied

Surveillance company Palantir, which bills itself as a “category-leading software” builder that “empowers organizations to create and govern artificial intelligence”, had a rewarding year.

The surveillance company initially cut its teeth on national security and law enforcement. Andrew Iliadis and Amelia Acker summed it up as being “among the most secretive and understudied surveillance firms globally”.

The company supplies “information technology solutions for data integration and tracking to police and government agencies, humanitarian organizations, and corporations”.

Founded in 2003 and named after the magical stones in The Lord of the Rings known as “Seeing Stones” or palantíri, it aimed to profiteer from national security.

While most of its work remains clandestine, Portugal’s former Secretary of State for European Affairs Bruno Maçães wrote that its technology, on show at the company’s London headquarters, targets the “coordination cycle: find, track, target, and prosecute”.

“As we enter the algorithmic age, time is compressed,” Maçães said. “From the moment the algorithms set to work detecting their targets until these targets are prosecuted — a term of art in the field — no more than two or three minutes elapse.”

Palantir’s stable of government clients are important, but the company has expanded its base with Foundry, the commercial version of the software.

“Foundry helps businesses make better decisions and solve problems, and Forrester estimated Foundry delivers a 315% return on investment (ROI) for its users,” wrote Will Healy, who is associated with Palantir.

Palantir Technologies UK also announced in April it had formed a partnership with the Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine (OPG) to “enable investigators on the ground and across Europe to share, integrate, and process all key data relating to more than 78,000 registered war crimes”.

The company’s co-founder and chief executive officer, Alexander C Karp said Palantir had entered an agreement with the OPG to help “investigators on the ground and across Europe to share, integrate, and process all key data relating to more than 78,000 registered war crimes”.

Palantir also revealed it was “helping Ukraine militarily, and supporting the resettlement of refugees in the UK, Poland and in Lithuania”.

“Software is a product of the legal and moral order in which it is created and plays a role in defending it,” Karp said.

He believes the “core mission of our company always was to make the West, especially America, the strongest in the world, the strongest it’s ever been, for the sake of global peace and prosperity”.

When Google dropped Project Maven, the US Department of Defense signature AI program, Palantir was offered its services.

The project, known as “Tron”, is designed to train AI to analyse aerial drone footage to enable the identification of objects and human beings.

“It’s commonly known that our software is used in an operational context at war,” Karp is reported as saying.

“Do you really think a war fighter is going to trust a software company that pulls the plug because something becomes controversial with their life? Currently, when you’re a war fighter your life depends on your software.”

War is one source of profit for Palantir. In 2020, Amnesty International published a report outlining the various human rights risks arising from Palantir’s contracts with the US Department of Homeland Security.

Of particular concern were associated products and services stemming from its Homeland Security Investigations (HIS) division of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Human rights groups, such as Mijente, along with a number of investors, have also noted that such contracts enable ICE to prosecute surveillance, detentions, raids, de facto family separations and deportations.

This year protests by hundreds of British health workers managed to shut down the central London headquarters of the tech behemoth.

The workers were protesting the National Health Service’s $616 million contract awarded to Palantir. Many objected given the corporation’s role in providing the Israeli government with military and surveillance technology, including predictive policing services — the latter being used to analyse social media posts by Palestinians that might reveal threats to public order or praise for “hostile” entities.

As Gaza is being flattened by the Israeli Defense Forces, Palantir remains loyal in defending it, even stubbornly so.

“We are one of the few companies in the world to stand and announce our support for Israel, which remains steadfast,” the company stated in a letter to shareholders.

[Binoy Kampmark currently lectures at RMIT University.]

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