Insights & Analyses

Mysterious company Palantir identifies potential crimes before they happen, like ‘Minority Report’

July 31, 2017

Backed by PayPal cofounder and billionaire Peter Thiel, a secretive CIA-supported startup called Palantir specializes in predicting potential crimes with sophisticated data mining techniques.

Drawing inevitable comparisons to the 2002 Steven Spielberg film “Minority Report,” and the 1956 short story of the same name by Philip K. Dick, Palantir was detailed by The Guardian as “all-powerful, yet know one knows it even exists.”

Clients of Palantir include the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Security Agency, the Centers for Disease Control, the military, and the Internal Revenue Service, to name a few.

The software has been used to track everyone from insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan to infamous corporate fraudster Bernie Madoff.

It’s also used to earn money on Wall Street, with a product called Palantir Metropolis that provides analytics for hedge funds, banks and financial services firms.

The office-less company is based out of Palo Alto, Calif., where a highly secured sensitive compartmentalized information facility, or SCIF, ensures the information it houses cannot be accessed. The facility is accessible only through secure biometrics, and the data itself is stored via blockchain, requiring passcodes from dozens of hidden independent parties in order to be read.

In Dick’s classic sci-fi story, crimes are predicted by mutants known as “precogs,” with their prognostications giving authorities the right to arrest individuals before they can inflict any harm.

In some respects, the capabilities of Palantir are eerily similar. As described by The Guardian, the system uses data on location, time and date of previously committed crimes, and then creates hotspots that police officers can parol. Among its list of clients is the Los Angeles Police Department, where Palantir claims its data is “improving situation awareness, and responding to crime in real time.”

Using behavioral patterns and expected activities to weed out criminals is nothing new, at least in the digital world. Banks, financial institutions and online providers have long tracked what they identify as suspicious activity or behavior to stamp out fraud — such as when you leave town and your credit card is declined attempting a purchase at a new location.

Predictive policing, however, takes matters considerably further, potentially putting lives at stake. Critics also fear that such systems could help to reinforce prejudices and fears, helping to continue a cycle of violence in America by police against minorities, particularly young black men.

In Spielberg’s 2002 film based on novel, star Tom Cruise, in the role of John Anderton, is a member of Washington D.C.’s PreCrime police department in the near 2054. And yet here in the real world, 37 years earlier, police are already employing some of the same tactics.