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Privacy issues with Palantir’s move into law enforcement, and how to tackle them

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The name “Palantir” bespeaks mystery. Its original meaning is the powerful artefact in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” that allows direct communications with distant lands. It is now also the name of a secretive company, Palantir Technologies, founded in 2004 by a number of Silicon Valley luminaries, chief among them Peter Thiel. At heart, Palantir is a data analysis company, “focused on creating the world’s best user experience for working with data, one that empowers people to ask and answer complex questions without requiring them to master querying languages, statistical modeling, or the command line.”

Its Web site details two main products, Palantir Gotham and Palantir Metropolis. It deploys these in a wide range of markets, including disaster preparedness, healthcare delivery, insurance analytics, crisis response, defense, disease response and pharma R&D. One sector likely to be of particular interest to readers of this blog is Palantir’s work in providing data analysis tools for law enforcement. A striking feature of a corporate white paper on the subject is its constant emphasis on protecting privacy through what it calls “civil liberties engineering“:

“This white paper describes key technical features of the Palantir Platform that can be configured to protect privacy and civil liberties and meet evolving regulatory standards. It also describes our approach to civil liberties engineering as a confluence of efforts working with customers, developers, advisors, and other relevant stakeholders to build and help implement solutions that effectively address the law enforcement challenges of today and tomorrow.”

A key aspect of protecting the privacy of those whose information is held on Palantir’s police databases is through the use of access controls:

“The Palantir Platform is designed with robust and granular access controls that allow LEAs [law enforcement agencies] to ensure users are exposed only to the information they

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