Gandalf: A palantir is a dangerous tool, Saruman.
Saruman: Why? Why should we fear to use it?
Gandalf: They are not all accounted for, the lost Seeing-stones. We do not know who else may be watching.
Source: Lord of the Rings
Valued at as much as $20 billion and inhabiting 15% of Palo Alto office space with its 1,800 employees, Palantir is ranked third among American unicorns behind Uber and Airbnb, yet few people have ever heard it. The word secretive is most often used to describe Palantir, but it’s not too difficult to find out who it is, what it does and how it does it. Palantir is a secret because nobody cares about big data mining when there are rides to hail and strangers’ beds to sleep in.
Nobody cares about Palantir, but they should. Funded in part by the CIA, Palantir enables humans to dance with big data in a improvised tango of Q&A. It is the weirdest, sexiest, most fantastical company in Silicon Valley. Palantir may have had a hand in tracking down Osama bin Laden, a claim to fame that would make it the deadliest of the killer apps. It has ties to the CIA, the NSA, Special Ops, the LAPD, NYPD, the Center for Disease Control and countless other crime and disease fighters. JP Morgan (codename: Magnum) was one of its first anti-fraud corporate clients.
I know you use a lot of your tools to find bad guys. Maybe you can help me find consumers. ~ Hershey’s CEO J.P. Bilbrey connects the wrong dots
Palantir emerged from PayPal’s successful anti-fraud efforts that relied on humans and computers working together to stay one step ahead of the bad guys. Its spiritual leader is Peter Thiel and its CEO is Alex Karp, Thiel’s friend from his Stanford Law days and one of the zaniest guys in the Valley. Karp has a PhD in philosophy and is a self-described “somewhat deviant” person who loves skanky places where people smoke things and do things. Who doesn’t?
If you spend enough time researching the company, you can’t help but think about Palantir during sexual activity, wondering how big data can get.
The name Palantir comes from the “seeing stone” palantír of Lord of the Rings, the crystal ball through which events in other parts of the world can be seen. The culture of the company is a celebration of good versus evil with Save the Shire (Shire is the homeland of the Hobbits) as its corporate cri de coeur. Among private companies Palantir is the most popular destination for Stanford computer grads, yet the company does not pay well by Silicon Valley standards. Fighting evildoers and saving lives is its own reward.
And yet there may be trouble in the land of the data-mining Palantirians.
Last week there were reports of a discrimination lawsuit, and in May BuzzFeed reported a projected 20% employee turnover in 2016 and dissatisfied customers such as Coke (codename: Luda), Amex (codename: Charlie’s Angels) and Nasdaq (codename: Nancy Drew) that walked away because of their lame codenames. Sorry. That wasn’t why they walked away. They walked away because they believed that the Palantir product wasn’t worth its $1-million-per-month price tag.
The superhero culture of the Palantirians may be bumping up against the buttoned-down demeanour of its corporate clients. Selling more diet Coke doesn’t play as well in the imagination as fighting human traffickers, tracking a disease outbreak or finding Osama bin Laden.
Palantir tried to build a data consortium among its corporate clients because its product works best when it has mountains of diverse data to mine. Palantir needed a critical mass of disparate data to provide the kind of insights that would attract corporate customers, but the companies in the consortium were inherently suspicious of one another. They could not relate to a common good and refused to supply their data.
Palantir struggles with clients for whom there’s no clear and present evil. When there’s no bad guy, there is a danger that Palantir itself can go rogue with its arrogance. As top-tier clients walked out the door they were accused of lacking vision. Coca-Cola conceded that it had trouble relating to Palantir’s millennials.
Who works at Palantir? Have a look.
An aura of suspicion hovers over Palantir like a slow leaking Wiki, but it’s hard to believe that anything nefarious is going on in a place with pets, a plastic ball playpen and a save-the-world vibe that is led by a wacky philosopher and run by the cast of Glee. Yet there is Peter Thiel, the Dorian Gray of Silicon Valley, lurking in the background, seeking revenge on his enemies and supporting a presidential candidate who would happily curtail the freedoms of people he doesn’t like. At the Republican National Convention the man who helped supply the government with some of its most potent spying software said:
It would be kind to say the government’s software works poorly, because much of the time it doesn’t work at all. ~ Peter Thiel
What is Palantir up to and should we be afraid? Take a look at this video that demonstrates the power of a few well-chosen questions.
In minutes the software went from nine fraudulent accounts to a Lamborghini in Florida. And my home remodel. They caught my home remodel!
Palantir has a tool that can be used to dangerously invade privacy. There are hundreds of seeing stones out there and, like Gandalf warned, we don’t know who is watching.
[This story was originally published on LinkedIn.]
Lynne Everatt is a Toronto-based writer and recovering MBA.