The stars of Silicon Valley pride themselves on being socially maladjusted geniuses and Alex Karp is surely one of their biggest dorks. The CEO of Palantir, a shadowy global business now going public, keeps a cabinet in his office that has 20 pairs of identical swimming goggles, according to an old Forbes profile. He’s a 52-year-old bachelor who can solve a Rubik’s cube in under three minutes and has practised aikido and jujitsu, putting colleagues into martial arts holds in the corridors of his Palo Alto empire. He lectures his staff on Marxism, greed and integrity (more on these two later) on an internal video channel called KarpTube. His company culture appears to be like Facebook and Google – there’s Lego, Nerf guns and a conference room converted into a plastic ball pit.
But beneath the eccentric facade, the young T-shirted grads of Palantir don’t sell raw water or expensive juicers or blood testing equipment that doesn’t work. What they make is software that will allow you to track down and murder your enemies. “Our product is used, on occasion, to kill people,” Karp told Axios on HBO. When asked by an interviewer if this meant targeting people with drone strikes, he said, “Targeting of all kinds. If you are looking for a terrorist in the world now you’re probably using our government product. And you’re probably doing the operation that actually takes out the person in another product we built.”
Palantir, which was co-founded in 2003 by Peter Thiel, the billionaire entrepreneur who invested in Facebook and funded a lawsuit that bankrupted the Gawker news website, is finally going public. It’s a move long-anticipated by Silicon Valley watchers and investors salivating over the company, which was recently valued at $41 billion.
Despite that glib statement about his software’s capacity for inflicting death (surely one of the world’s worst responses to the dinner party question, “So what do you do?”), Karp runs a secretive firm that keeps many of his clients’ operations quiet. He claims to “power most of the West and its key institutions”. Palantir, named after magical seeing stones from the Lord of the Rings, works closely with governments, security agencies and enormous companies – its clients are spread over more than 40 countries and include the CIA, FBI, NSA, Marine Corps, Airbus, Walmart and BP. What exactly it does for them is uncertain, as Karp likes to tell people Palantir is a “shy” company. But it first and foremost makes software that sources and integrates different types of data into one place, and says its creations help soldiers predict ambushes and defend banks from cyberfraud.
Some of the achievements Palantir is happy to talk about involve tracking down Mexican drug cartel members who assassinated an American customs agent and finding the hackers who installed spyware onto the Dalai Lama’s computer. They are also said to have been involved in the assassination of Osama bin Laden.
Some of the work it is way less happy to talk about is with ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which has separated migrant children from their parents at the US border and runs camps in the US where guards are said to “systematically” sexually assault detainees.
Ryan Beiermeister, a former senior vice president for government products at Palantir, told an admiring Forbes interviewer in December 2019 not to jump to conclusions about the company’s work with ICE. “I think we all live in a pretty polarised climate right now,” she said. “It means that people rush to various sides of debates and think of them in very black and white ways as opposed to appreciating nuance.” She denied that Palantir worked on enforcement and removal operations, just homeland security investigations.
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