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What to know about Palantir, the big data company that works with ICE

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The big data company Palantir plans to file to go public in the coming weeks, Bloomberg’s Katie Roof and Lizette Chapman reported

This company, first launched in 2004, has been secretive for most of its existence. Last year, there were rumors that it would go public. Now, Bloomberg reports that Palantir could start trading as early as this fall. The company has yet to respond to a request for comment.

Palantir’s earliest claim to fame is that it was cofounded by Facebook board member and VC Peter Thiel, one of President Donald Trump’s biggest backers in Silicon Valley.

Over the years, Palantir grew into one of the most valuable startups in the country, with a $2.75 billion in venture capital raised and a $20 billion valuation — despite the fact that it operates under a veil of secrecy.

It works closely with the US government and law enforcement agencies, counting the FBI, CIA, and Department of Defense as customers, among other agencies (more on that in a moment). Indeed, Palantir CEO Alex Karp recently blasted other tech companies for what he perceives as a reluctance to work on defense-related projects. 

Palantir has boasted about the good that it does, especially as pertaining to its work with government agencies: Previously, CEO Alex Karp has said that he hears about a foiled terrorist attack in Europe almost every week. 

However, Palantir has also found itself scrutinized for its dealings with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the US agency responsible for enforcing President Donald Trump’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants in the country. WNYC reported that ICE agents use the company’s apps in the field during workplace raids.

That controversy has touched Amazon as well, as Palantir relies on Amazon’s cloud to run its big data software. Already, people within and outside of Amazon have protested its ties to Palantir.

Now, activist organizations are protesting Palantir for working with ICE by providing the software that makes many of its core operations possible. For example, they held protests at Palantir’s Palo Alto offices to protest the company’s contracts with ICE. 

At the same time, Palantir’s creators are going on the offensive, criticizing tech companies that don’t work with the US government and proclaiming Palantir’s patriotic bona fides. Joe Lonsdale, a VC who cofounded Palantir but is no longer involved in company’s operations, said last year that Palantir is “probably the most patriotic company” in Silicon Valley.

Here’s what to know about this richly valued and controversial data mining company.

What is Palantir?

Based in Palo Alto, California, Palantir was founded in 2003 by a group of PayPal alumni and Stanford computer scientists, including CEO Alex Karp. 

Palantir creates software to manage, analyze, and secure data. Its name comes from a mystical, spherical object in the “Lord of the Rings” book that allows its owner to “see from afar.” In total, the company has raised $2.75 billion in venture capital.

As for Karp, he is a self-described socialist, even though Palantir works with large corporations and government agencies to provide big data tools.

The company was born out of Thiel’s experience working at PayPal, where credit card fraud cost the company millions each month. To solve the problem, PayPal built an internal security application that helped employees analyze suspicious transactions.

Palantir takes a similar approach by finding patterns in complicated data. For example, law enforcement agencies can use it to search for links in phone records, photos, vehicle information, criminal history, biometrics, credit card transactions, addresses, and police reports.

VICE reported Palantir’s software allows law enforcement to enter a license plate number and quickly get an itinerary of the routes and places the vehicle has travelled. Police can also use it to map out family and business relationships.

And Palantir’s technology has been used in New Orleans for predictive policing, The Verge reported — a practice that has been shown to increase surveillance and arrests in communities of color.  Palantir has been involved in various lawsuits in the past few years. For example, in 2017, Palantir settled a lawsuit from the Department of Labor saying that its hiring practices discriminated against Asians

In 2016, Oracle reportedly considered buying Palantir. Previously, Palantir was reportedly in talks with Credit Suisse and Morgan Stanley about an IPO in the second half of 2019. 

As a privately held company, Palantir’s valuation is believed to be anywhere from $11 billion to $41 billion, depending on who is doing the estimates. PitchBook pegs its valuation at $20 billion.

Why is Palantir so secretive?

Palantir is notoriously tight-lipped. That’s because many of its customer agreements include non-disclosure clauses due to the nature of their work. As a result, Palantir tends to keep a low profile, sharing almost no information about how its software is used or its own finances. 

Palantir reportedly expects to generate $1 billion in revenue this year and to break even for the first time in its 16-year history.

While it counts commercial businesses and nonprofits as customers, it also works with many government organizations, banks, and legal research firms. Some customers include Credit Suisse, JP Morgan Chase, the Department of Defense, Merck, Airbus, the FBI, and the CIA.

On its website, it says that people work with Palantir to uncover human trafficking rings, analyze finances, respond to natural disasters, track disease outbreaks, combat cyberattacks, prevent terrorist attacks, and more. 

Working with government agencies is a core part of Palantir’s business. For the first several years, Palantir only sold its data analysis products to US government agencies. Palantir works with various military organizations and combat missions to gather information on enemy activity, track criminals, identify fraud, plan logistics, and more.  

For example, its software has been used by the Marine Corps to gather intelligence, and it’s building software for the US Army to analyze terrain, movement, and weather information in remote areas. It’s even been rumored to have been used to track down Osama Bin Laden, although Palantir did not comment directly on it. 

Palantir has also been selective about the customers it works with. For example, Karp previously told Fortune that Palantir turned down a partnership with a tobacco company “for fear the company would harness the data to pinpoint vulnerable communities to sell cigarettes to.”

What is Palantir doing with ICE?

According to USAspending.gov, Palantir has received over $170 million in contracts with ICE, including active contracts worth about $94 million. Palantir provides investigative case management software to ICE to gather, store, and search troves of data on undocumented immigrants’ employment information, phone records, immigration history, and more.

Palantir employees had reportedly “begged” to end the ICE deal, but Karp said the data is being used for drug enforcement, not separating families. Palantir also said ICE uses its technology for investigating criminal activity like human trafficking, child exploitation, and counter-terrorism. However, Mijente reported that ICE agents used Palantir’s software to build profiles of undocumented children and family members that could be used for prosecution and arrest.

WNYC also reported that ICE agents used a Palantir program called FALCON Mobile to plan workplace raids earlier this year. This app reportedly allowed them to search through law enforcement databases with information on people’s people’s immigration histories, family relationships, and past border crossings. 

Last year, two days after an ICE reportedly sent an email notifying staff to use the FALCON app, ICE raided nearly 100 7-Elevens across the country.

Why are people protesting Amazon?

All this has also sparked protests against Amazon, since Palantir relies on Amazon’s cloud to run its software. Previously at the Burning Man festival, a national group for Latinx and Chicanx organizing called Mijente brought a giant cage to protest Amazon and Palantir’s involvement with ICE.

In 2018, an anonymous Amazon employee wrote a Medium blog post that said over 450 Amazon employees wrote to CEO Jeff Bezos demanding it to stop working with Palantir. Employees also confronted Bezos at an all-hands about its connection to ICE.

Last year, Amazon employees circulated another internal letter demanding that Amazon stop working with Palantir and take a stand against ICE.

Read more: Read the internal letter sent by a group of Amazon employees asking the company to take a stand against ICE 

Later that week, at an Amazon Web Services conference, activists interrupted the keynote in protest of Amazon’s ties to Palantir and ICE.

“As we’ve said many times and continue to believe strongly, companies and government organizations need to use existing and new technology responsibly and lawfully. There is clearly a need for more clarity from governments on what is acceptable use of AI and ramifications for its misuse, and we’ve provided a proposed legislative framework for this. We remain eager for the government to provide this additional clarity and legislation, and will continue to offer our ideas and specific suggestions,” an AWS spokesperson said in a statement at the time.

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