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Does Palantir See Too Much?

#artificialintelligence

On a bright Tuesday afternoon in Paris last fall, Alex Karp was doing tai chi in the Luxembourg Gardens. He wore blue Nike sweatpants, a blue polo shirt, orange socks, charcoal-gray sneakers and white-framed sunglasses with red accents that inevitably drew attention to his most distinctive feature, a tangle of salt-and-pepper hair rising skyward from his head. Under a canopy of chestnut trees, Karp executed a series of elegant tai chi and qigong moves, shifting the pebbles and dirt gently under his feet as he twisted and turned. A group of teenagers watched in amusement. After 10 minutes or so, Karp walked to a nearby bench, where one of his bodyguards had placed a cooler and what looked like an instrument case. The cooler held several bottles of the nonalcoholic German beer that Karp drinks (he would crack one open on the way out of the park). The case contained a wooden sword, which he needed for the next part of his routine. "I brought a real sword the last time I was here, but the police stopped me," he said matter of factly as he began slashing the air with the sword. Those gendarmes evidently didn't know that Karp, far from being a public menace, was the chief executive of an American company whose software has been deployed on behalf of public safety in France. The company, Palantir Technologies, is named after the seeing stones in J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings." Its two primary software programs, Gotham and Foundry, gather and process vast quantities of data in order to identify connections, patterns and trends that might elude human analysts. The stated goal of all this "data integration" is to help organizations make better decisions, and many of Palantir's customers consider its technology to be transformative. Karp claims a loftier ambition, however. "We built our company to support the West," he says. To that end, Palantir says it does not do business in countries that it considers adversarial to the U.S. and its allies, namely China and Russia. In the company's early days, Palantir employees, invoking Tolkien, described their mission as "saving the shire." The brainchild of Karp's friend and law-school classmate Peter Thiel, Palantir was founded in 2003. It was seeded in part by In-Q-Tel, the C.I.A.'s venture-capital arm, and the C.I.A. remains a client. Palantir's technology is rumored to have been used to track down Osama bin Laden -- a claim that has never been verified but one that has conferred an enduring mystique on the company. These days, Palantir is used for counterterrorism by a number of Western governments.