Palantir has nothing to do with the NSA’s PRISM program

If a technology company creates a platform that allows data integration from disparate databases and a component in its software is called Prism, is that sufficient reason to speculate that it might have some connection with the much-reported NSA PRISM surveillance program?

It seems like it was good enough reason for Talking Points Memo and Gawker.

Gawker‘s Sam Biddle says: “No one knows what Palantir — named after a magical rock in Lord of The Rings that granted remote vision — exactly does.” But it turns out the “secretive data-mining company” provides a lot of information about what it does both through its website and its YouTube channel with 261 videos.

Josh Marshall’s post at TPM was initially based on an email from an anonymous reader who, for what it’s worth (not much), knows a guy who works for Palo Alto-based Palantir (which has over 800 employees). “I want to stress this is a reader email, not TPM reporting,” Marshall wrote before later adding multiple updates but neglecting to include a statement from the company, relayed on Twitter by the Financial Times tech correspondent, Tim Bradshaw: “Palantir’s Prism platform is completely unrelated to any US government program of the same name.”

Why should the company’s denial be taken at face value?

Here’s a good reason.

In the widely seen PowerPoint slide which depicts dates when PRISM collection began for providers beginning with Microsoft, the first date is September 11, 2007. Yahoo came on board in March 2008.

In a 2012 interview with TechCrunch, Palantir founder and CEO Alex Karp describing their platform said: “We didn’t know it would actually work, until 2008, and we didn’t know anyone would buy it until mid-2008, so third quarter 2008.”

Whatever the NSA was using for data collection from Microsoft and Yahoo in late 2007 and early 2008, it’s pretty clear it wasn’t Palantir software.

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4 thoughts on “Palantir has nothing to do with the NSA’s PRISM program

  1. hquain

    Nice catch. Conspiracy theories are wonderful. The basic move is to deprecate the obvious in favor of the impossible, and you’ve caught them at it.

    The best moment, though, was when Josh first published the email — verbatim. It ended with the guy’s [first] name followed by a plea for anonymity.

  2. Paul Woodward

    “… deprecate the obvious in favor of the impossible…” — that’s well said. Though in Palantir’s case, I wouldn’t quite relegate them to the ranks of either the impossible or even improbable. PRISM definitely sounds like a project that could fit within their operational domain — no doubt there are a few other candidates that would fit that role as well.

    I note that Josh Marshall never acknowledged he’d been a bit of a sucker for publishing what turned out to be idle speculation. Instead, poker-faced he repeated Palantir’s denial of involvement in PRISM, and yet TPM’s reporting of that denial then tried to suck some more juice out of the story:

    TPM followed up to ask if, beyond the company’s Prism platform, Palantir had ever worked on or with the government’s PRISM program. But Long said, one way or the other, company policy is to not comment on any government customers.

    Ask an investigative-like question and get a “no comment” response and we all know, nod nod, wink wink, that Palantir’s guarding a secret. Of course it’s much easier for a TPM reporter to devote a few minutes to an email non-exchange than spend a few hours doing some independent research.

  3. mike

    So… a technology company creates a platform that allows data collection and integration from disparate databases and it has a component called Prism.
    The NSA creates a platform that allows data collection and integration from disparate databases and it has a component called Prism.
    The CIA funded the startup of Palantir…

    Of course its a coincidence!
    What else could it possibly be!

  4. Paul Woodward

    A few useful facts to chew on:
    1. The PPT presentation on the NSA’s PRISM shows Microsoft enrolling in the program in 2007
    2. Palantir hadn’t produced any software that anyone wanted to buy until 3rd Qt 2008.
    3. The CIA’s funding (through In-Q-Tel) of Palantir amounted to $2 million, but the company received a total of $30 million seed funding.
    4. The word “prism” has been in use for about 500 years.

    No doubt Palantir has contracts with the NSA — their software is apparently prized by much of the intelligence community.

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