Presenting the creepily but brilliantly named Palantir, a computer program that allows the intelligence services to comb every available database for information about terror suspects:
Since its founding in 2004, the company has quietly developed an indispensable tool employed by the U.S. intelligence community in the war on terrorism. Palantir technology essentially solves the Sept. 11 intelligence problem. The Digital Revolution dumped oceans of data on the law enforcement establishment but provided feeble ways to make sense of it. In the months leading up to the 2001 attacks, the government had all the necessary clues to stop the al Qaeda perpetrators: They were from countries known to harbor terrorists, who entered the U.S. on temporary visas, had trained to fly civilian airliners, and purchased one-way airplane tickets on that terrible day.
An organization like the CIA or FBI can have thousands of different databases, each with its own quirks: financial records, DNA samples, sound samples, video clips, maps, floor plans, human intelligence reports from all over the world. Gluing all that into a coherent whole can take years. Even if that system comes together, it will struggle to handle different types of data—sales records on a spreadsheet, say, plus video surveillance images. What Palantir (pronounced Pal-an-TEER) does, says Avivah Litan, an analyst at Gartner, is “make it really easy to mine these big data sets.” The company’s software pulls off one of the great computer science feats of the era: It combs through all available databases, identifying related pieces of information, and puts everything together in one place.
Depending where you fall on the spectrum between civil liberties absolutism and homeland security lockdown, Palantir’s technology is either creepy or heroic. … “It’s like plugging into the Matrix,” says a Special Forces member stationed in Afghanistan who requested anonymity out of security concerns. “The first time I saw it, I was like, ‘Holy crap. Holy crap. Holy crap.’ ”
Well, it says something about my own double-mindedness about this topic that I am both grateful for this technology — because it will keep us safer — and terrified of it, because if the US government ever decides that I and people like me are the enemy … . It’s inventor tells BusinessWeek that Palantir’s function is “to protect the Shire.” That’s true, and admirable — as long as it remains in the hands of Gandalf, not Saruman. Good luck with that.