In the earlier days of the Covid-19 pandemic, many of the country’s public health departments, still reliant on fax machines, were woefully unprepared for the massive amounts of data they needed to process. Looking for a tidy private sector solution to a messy government problem, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) paid a shadowy Silicon Valley company with ties to the Trump administration to build something new. That company is called Palantir Technologies, and if you don’t know much about it, that’s by design…
Palantir specializes in data-gathering and analysis, most of which it does for government agencies. It has about $1.5 billion in federal government contracts alone, including, recently, with the Space Force and the Navy. Now, as new Covid-19 case numbers break records daily, Palantir is trying to help organize the information with a new platform called HHS Protect, which will be run by another private company called TeleTracking. This partnership has effectively replaced the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Healthcare Safety Network, per the Trump administration’s orders to hospitals to stop reporting their information to it. HHS Protect, which is not accessible to the general public, is now the only source for this information.
“Today, the CDC still has at least a week lag in reporting hospital data,” Michael Caputo, assistant secretary of the HHS for public affairs, told the New York Times. “America requires it in real time. The new, faster, and complete data system is what our nation needs to defeat the coronavirus.”
Palantir, the architect of this complete data system, isn’t a household name like its Palo Alto peers, but the 17-year-old company founded by Peter Thiel is one of the most valuable private companies in Silicon Valley. That anonymity is a feature, not a bug: Palantir does most of its work for the government, including national security and intelligence operations. In recent years, headlines about the company have stressed its access to everything about all of us, which privacy advocates have long criticized. Palantir’s data-mining software has been credited with killing Osama bin Laden (a claim that has never been confirmed) and blamed for tearing unauthorized immigrant families apart.
Now the notoriously secretive surveillance startup that the White House is entrusting with the nation’s coronavirus data is about to go public.
The Lord of the Rings-based solution to 9/11
Palantir was founded in 2003 by venture capitalist and Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel along with Joe Lonsdale, Stephen Cohen, Nathan Gettings, and Alex Karp, its eccentric CEO who has a law degree and a PhD in neoclassical social theory and keeps 20 identical pairs of swimming goggles in his office. The company’s name comes from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “palantíri,” which are magical orbs that let their possessors see anything happening in the world at any time. The name fits, too, as Palantir’s vision has always been to create software that can mine and analyze large and disparate data sets, putting them all in one place and finding connections between them.
The company came together not long after 9/11, when Palantir was pitched as a tool that could have identified and stopped the hijackers and would prevent similar attacks from happening in the future. Sure enough, by 2011, Bloomberg Businessweek was calling Palantir “an indispensable tool employed by the US intelligence community in the war on terrorism.” The magazine added, “Palantir technology essentially solves the Sept. 11 intelligence problem.”
Indeed, the CIA was one of Palantir’s earliest investors through its venture capital arm, In-Q-Tel (yes, the CIA has a venture capital arm). It was Palantir’s only customer for years as the company refined and improved its technology, according to Forbes. By 2010, Palantir’s customers were mostly government agencies, though there were some private companies in the mix. Having managed to quietly work its way toward a $1 billion valuation, it was then one of the most valuable startups in Silicon Valley. By 2015, Palantir was valued at $20 billion.
“I think it’s worth keeping in mind that Palantir sees itself not alongside Uber, Twitter, and Netflix, but alongside Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and Booz Allen,” said the Intercept’s Sam Biddle, who has covered Palantir for years. “Palantir wants to be a defense contractor, not a Silicon Valley unicorn.”
Palantir has grown into a company with roughly 2,500 employees, most of them engineers who write the software that collects data, and embedded analysts who work on site with Palantir’s customers to make sense of it. Company culture has been described as…
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