Saturday, June 29, 2013

Why is Larry Lessig plugging Palantir?

Update (6/30): Professor Lessig has posted a response on his blog, which I thank him for. Providing some disclosure, he states that he has "a high regard for [the] integrity" of the two people from Palantir he knows personally.

Update(7/2, 3:30pm EST): Lessig is currently doing an AMA on; it's not really related to this article, but if you'd like to ask him anything or read his current responses, it's there.

Prof. Lessig, I'm a big fan. Your TED talk had me floored; never had I seen someone elucidate the problem of campaign finance ("legal corruption" as you put it well) in the US and its consequences so effectively. When I saw you had been interviewed by Bill Moyers (me being subscribed to your blog by RSS, and all), I promptly set the video aside for later watching.

But today, a colleague of mine who got to the interview before me noted that during your exchange with Moyers on the topic of pro-privacy software development, around the 13:30 mark, you mentioned a very interesting company:
And the reality then is that if we don't have technical measures in place to protect against misuse, this is just a trove of potential misuse. Now, that's the part that really frustrates me. Because, I wrote a book in '99 called Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. My point from the very beginning has been we've got to think about the technology as a protector of liberty too. So code is a kind of law. And the government should be implementing technologies to protect our liberties. Because if they don't, we don't figure out how to build that protection into the technology it won't be there. And what's frustrating to me is to hear a description of a system where we don't have any infrastructure in place really to protect the privacy. We have infrastructure in place to facilitate the surveillance. When there are plenty of entities out there, companies like, there's a company called Palantir who's built a technology to make it absolutely, make you absolutely confident that a particular bit of data has been used precisely as the government says it's supposed to be used. You can find out exactly who's looked at it and for what purpose it's been used at. So the point is there's a way to build the technology to give us this liberty back, this privacy back. But it's not a priority to think about using code to protect us.
Indeed, reading your piece at The Daily Beast, it seems that this company is the only one you can think of that can give us hope in our age of an internet in want of privacy protection.
Because the fact is that there is technology that could be deployed that would give many the confidence that none of us now have. “Trust us” does not compute. But trust and verify, with high-quality encryption, could. And there are companies, such as Palantir, developing technologies that could give us, and more importantly, reviewing courts, a very high level of confidence that data collected or surveilled was not collected or used in an improper way.

But.. Palantir? You mean Barrett Brown's Palantir?
Indeed, in an e-mail from Aaron Barr of HBGary Federal to Matthew Steckman of Palantir Technologies, Barr makes the case for subverting WikiLeaks and its supporters in the “liberal” media–and discusses plans to “attack” then-Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald.
Palantir Technologies ... was founded in 2004 with funds from the venture capital firm, In-Q-Tel, to develop software for fraud detection. In-Q-Tel is a non-profit investment firm chartered in 1999 at the request of the CIA director. In-Q-Tel’s investment is run through In-Q-Tel Interface Center (QIC), an office within the CIA. Trustees from In-Q-Tel hold executive level positions at companies such as Netscape, Sun Microsystems, Time Warner, Federal Express, ATT Wireless, and New Enterprise Associates. Most of its current investments are in the biotechnology and IT/communications industries.
No, it couldn't be that company..

Palantir, which received seed money from the CIA's investment arm, In-Q-Tel, and shares founders with PayPal, made a public apology to the effect that the cyber-plotting did not reflect the company's values, and put one of the employees involved, Matthew Steckman, on leave. A few months later, when the press had lost interest, Palantir brought him back on. Nothing at all seems to have happened to another employee, Eli Bingham, who was also heavily involved. When Palantir throws its annual convention, it still attracts keynote speakers like former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff – who happens to be on the board of another huge contractor, BAE Systems, which, in turn, happened to have done some business with HBGary Federal, as well. 
Yes, BAE Systems, which just yesterday won $296 million in contracts from the Pentagon for communications tech, to add to its other multi-million dollar deals to make body armor and missile materials.

I would think that you would be familiar with Barrett Brown. He's a young white male subscribing to an ideology demanding the transparency and freedom from corporatocratic corruption, currently facing charges from the government for hacking...

Did you maybe know of Brown's story and forgot Palantir's name for the moment, hear a cool speech on your recent trip to the Bilderberg meet (where you and Palantir's CEO likely met), and didn't think to Google DuckDuckGo websearch the name before you went on television and.. let's call a spade a spade, plugged it? Even then, it's a little bit fishy.

Edit: oh boy, didn't expect to hit the front page of HN.. users commenting noted something that I should have included: Palantir apparently "cut all ties" to HB Gary and apologized for the whole Glenn Greenwald thing, according to this article. More discussion here. However, the quote from the 2012 Guardian article by Brown still stands. As does the millions of dollars in government contracts since the apology:
But perhaps more relevant is Palantir’s primary focus: working with the national security apparatus. They’ve done at least $6,378,332 in business with entities like SOCOM and FBI in the last several years. And while they say they have no plans to adopt “offensive cyber capabilities,” that’s not to say they’re not helping the government analyze data on our presumed enemies.
In 2012, they did even better:
Palantir Technologies, Palo Alto, Calif., was awarded a $19,242,997 firm-fixed-price contract.  The award will provide for the procurement of Palantir core CPU server licenses, field service representative support and server hardware.  Work will be performed in Palo Alto and Afghanistan, with an estimated completion date of Sept. 27, 2013.  One bid was solicited, with one bid received.  The U.S. Army Contracting Command, Adelphi, Md., is the contracting activity (W911QX-12-F-0022).  
And if this website is reliable, we have $52 million total from 2000 to 2012.

Edit #2: My colleague alerted me to this article at BusinessWeek about the company, which includes this gem:
Soghoian points out that Palantir’s senior legal adviser, Bryan Cunningham, authored an amicus brief three years ago supporting the Bush Administration’s position in the infamous warrantless wiretapping case and defended its monitoring domestic communication without search warrants.
Cunningham's LinkedIn shows he's "Senior Advisor" at the Chertoff Group, a firm known for representing (and hyping) companies that make full body scanners for airports. Is this the kind of setup Prof. Lessig wanted to foster with Rootstrikers? Maybe he just likes Palantir's people: four out of five of the founders -- Stephen Cohen, Joe Lonsdale, Peter Thiel, and Alex Karp -- are from the law school where he used to be a professor.

I should note again that I respect and admire the professor for the work he's doing; his campaigning for Aaron and for election finance reform are exactly what we need. But the plug of this particular company, in tandem with the Daily Beast article, left me confused. Especially with Palantir's campaign contributions to Adam Smith, affiliate of the American Defense & Military PAC, along with now-president Barack Obama, senator and ardent NSA defender Dianne Feinstein, and the "Promoting Our Republican Team" PAC -- this from a company started with CIA seed money.


  1. Ah I have a thought about this. I have noticed for some time that Lessig walks a strange line on the issue of IP (intellectual property) and freedom & privacy.

    Lessig believes IP is necessary & requires architectural changes to the internet to protect it. He is in favor of government monitoring to protect IP as long as it is done in accordance with the law, and he proposes a flawed mechanism (P3P) to protect your privacy.

    cross posted here:
    Please read that for the full text.

  2. Oh please! Lessig wrote an entire book deriding corruption.

    1. He has also written an entire book "Code", which uses copyright to justify programs like Palantir PRISM.

  3. @Nick - I understand that, which is why his repeated reference to a company smelling of very friendly private-public cohesion and involved in the HB Gary scandal makes me confused.

  4. Lessig has responded here:
    What's needed is a discussion about the merits of Palantir's claims of auditability, which are false.
    See more here: