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Palantir, the War On Terror's Secret Weapon 276

hessian tips a story in BusinessWeek about Palantir, a system designed to aggregate disparate data points gathered by intelligence agencies and weave them into a more useful narrative. The article summarizes it thus: "Depending where you fall on the spectrum between civil liberties absolutism and homeland security lockdown, Palantir’s technology is either creepy or heroic." "The day Fikri drives to Orlando, he gets a speeding ticket, which triggers an alert in the CIA's Palantir system. An analyst types Fikri's name into a search box and up pops a wealth of information pulled from every database at the government's disposal. There's fingerprint and DNA evidence for Fikri gathered by a CIA operative in Cairo; video of him going to an ATM in Miami; shots of his rental truck's license plate at a tollbooth; phone records; and a map pinpointing his movements across the globe. All this information is then displayed on a clearly designed graphical interface that looks like something Tom Cruise would use in a Mission: Impossible movie."
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Palantir, the War On Terror's Secret Weapon

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  • by Gideon Wells ( 1412675 ) on Saturday November 26, 2011 @03:06PM (#38175742)

    Well, I hope jokes.

    For years we have been joking that 1984 is not a guide. Now it seems either someone being paid to develop this has a sense of humor or has decided to up their game. No longer will 1984 be the guide, they are out to outdo the Dark Lord Sauron himself. Though, Tolkien was trying to recreate the lost myths of Britain, and by that reasoning LotR would be our past... Has anyone noticed any recent appointees or elected officials seemingly always wearing a plain gold ring?

  • Hmmm (Score:4, Interesting)

    by PCM2 ( 4486 ) on Saturday November 26, 2011 @03:14PM (#38175798) Homepage

    1. Integrates multiple, disparate global databases and extracts information from them like magic.
    2. Combines text, numeric data, and multimedia as if they were ingredients in a cake recipe.
    3. Has a UI that looks just like something from a Hollywood movie.
    4. Designed and implemented by the government.

    Add that its name is derived from a fantasy novel, and why, yes, I do believe that this story is absolutely true.

  • LOL (Score:4, Interesting)

    by 0123456 ( 636235 ) on Saturday November 26, 2011 @03:15PM (#38175802)

    The problem with the 'all-seeing eye' is that it sees everything and is overloaded with irrelevant details. After the next major terrorist attack the government will be asking why the 'intelligence' agencies yet again failed to detect them and the answer will be that they were wasting their time chasing up thousands of useless 'leads' spewed out by their surveillance systems.

  • Re:Hello (Score:4, Interesting)

    by tmosley ( 996283 ) on Saturday November 26, 2011 @03:47PM (#38175962)
    Does that make Osama bin Laden Bilbo Baggins?
  • Re:Hello (Score:5, Interesting)

    by flyingsquid ( 813711 ) on Saturday November 26, 2011 @04:22PM (#38176104)

    Big Brother.

    1984... is freaking real

    I wouldn't be so sure about that. If you read the article, it starts out with the story of a suspicious character by the name of Mike Fikri. Fikri has bought a one-way ticket from Egypt to Florida, he's making bank withdrawals from Russia, talking to suspicious people in Syria, scoping out crowded places at Disneyworld. The scenario lays out something a lot like the lead up to 9/11: lots of individual actions that alone mean nothing, but together make a huge red flag and make this guy a Person of Interest. And Palantir can allow the government to spot this guy before he executes his plot. And you start thinking, wow, if this technology really spotted this guy, maybe it's worth thinking seriously about it. And then the article's punchline: "Fikri isn’t real—he’s the John Doe example Palantir uses in product demonstrations that lay out such hypothetical examples."

    Here's the problem with all these liberty-vs-security debates. Before we get into the argument about just how much personal liberty we're willing to give up for security, let's first establish that the proposed measures would actually make us safer. Does any of this security theatre actually work? If torture isn't an effective interrogation technique- and all of the available evidence strongly suggests that it is not- we don't need to have a debate about whether it's moral to torture someone to save lives. If torture doesn't work, then the left, right, and centre should all be able to agree that we shouldn't torture. Similarly, has all of this government eavesdropping actually produced useful leads in the War on Terror? If so, then we can have a debate about the merits of something like Palantir. But if after ten years the government still can't point to a single credible case of where massive, indiscriminate domestic surveillance has spotted a credible threat from a terrorist, well, there's no need to even debate the civil rights aspect of it. It's just a waste of resources regardless of whether it's justifiable or not.

    Basically, the War on Terror proponents want to engage you in a debate that goes like this: "Aren't you willing to give up just a little liberty for a lot of security?" It's a reasonable proposition for anyone but a hardcore libertarian, so that's a debate they can win with many people. So if you engage them in that discussion, you're basically ceding the argument. They're going to win over the majority of the people every time. But the debate we need to be having first is, "Are all of these invasive, expensive measures you're proposing actually going to make us safer at all?"

    Or look at it this way. A guy comes up to you with a handful of beans and says, "These are Magic Antiterrorism Beans. They cost a billion dollars but they'll keep you safe from terrorists forever. Isn't that a small price to pay for security?" Before you start haggling over the price, wouldn't you want to be sure that the beans actually worked?

  • by HiThere ( 15173 ) <{ten.knilhtrae} {ta} {nsxihselrahc}> on Saturday November 26, 2011 @04:57PM (#38176220)

    It's a feedback system, set up around the time of the civil war. The companies pay the politicians, and the politicians pay the companies. They just use different kinds of coin. (Before then "lobbying" was illegal.)

    Expect that where-ever, whenever, you have centralized control by humans, you will have corruption. Expect it, and design your systems to account for it. One reason that elections are a bad means of selecting representatives is that they encourage corruption. A simple lottery would be better. (Simple. It is to laugh. You still need means to prevent corruption, even if almost everyone selected would start out not-yet corrupted. This means enforced penalties. Not only on those who are the corrupters, but also on those who become corrupt. And it means denying rewards in the future, not just while they hold office.)

    But in a feedback system, you can't say one link is more important than the other. They are all important. If any one breaks, the mode of operation of the system changes.

    What I propose is that if someone is selected to state or regional office, they be given a salary of 3/2 the median income in the country, an ample pension, and forbidden from accepting any gifts or favors from anyone. Expenses of office would need to be covered (which can get a bit tricky...but being a bit lavish here isn't *too* damaging to the country).

    And I also propose that they be selected at random (lottery) from among all adult citizens in an area. It would probably be best to increase the number of Senators, as we don't want a state to be represented by a delegation that's half looney. But 1/3 would be ok.

    If you don't like this, Condorcet voting or Instant Runoff is far better than the current system, as it makes it much more difficult for all contenders to be purchased before the election. But you also need to do something to eliminate the advantage that the well-funded have over the poorly funded, or even so the improvement is likely to be minimal.

    OTOH, don't expect the Supreme Court to allow anything to be done that will impede the ability of the well-funded to rule things. They have recently and historically shown a distressing tendency to side with the wealthy, and let justice and equity go hang.

    If the Constitution was actually honored, I'd be much less likely to propose such an alteration, which is clearly unconstitutional (unless amended). However, since the constitution is ignored except when it's convenient by the powerful and wealthy, I have no qualms in such a proposal. (Besides, I know it won't be adopted, so I'll never be proven foolish.)

  • Re:Nice try. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by causality ( 777677 ) on Saturday November 26, 2011 @05:41PM (#38176428)

    No, dipshit, I specifically didn't include Sept 11, because it's an outlier. My original point, still unchanged, is that the notion that there are a bunch of perverted government agents out there, using their systems to track down people to rape, is absurd fear-mongering. You, being the liar you are, came in and tried to confuse the issue by giving out numbers for EVERY RAPE IN THE COUNTRY, as if the government is responsible for them all.

    Your statistics are irrelevant. You may as well rattle off the number of murders in Bolivia. You need to compare the number of people hurt by terrorists to the number of people hurt by perverted government agents using the tools of their job. That is the relevant statistic. And use a ten year window, because both incidents are rare and we need to use a larger window to get a better sample size.

    The danger isn't rape. The danger is that it's getting increasingly easier for anyone to be declared a "terrorist" with little or no burden of proof from the government making the accusation. Then they play games with "enemy combatant" status and want the power to assassinate US citizens with no trial or other due process. Now they want more surveillance tools?

    What's getting raped is whatever trust, credibility, and goodwill the US federal government has left. If it helps them obtain more power (that will never be relinquished, that will continue to find reasons to justify its use) then I'm sure they consider those things to be "collateral damage".

  • Re:Hello (Score:5, Interesting)

    by pugugly ( 152978 ) on Saturday November 26, 2011 @06:04PM (#38176582)

    I don't find it so much creepy as, well, useless.

    We keep trying to add more raw data to the system - what's needed is to remove irrelevant data from the system.

    This is just going to be a boondoggle full of data that can eventually prove Captain America Killed Kennedy in the Library with the Lead Pipe.

    We only have so many smart people that can investigate so many leads - sending them off to investigate a speeding ticket because his girlfriend dated bin Laden's father's brother's former roommate is no use whatsoever.



  • Re:Hello (Score:4, Interesting)

    by rtb61 ( 674572 ) on Sunday November 27, 2011 @02:29AM (#38180012) Homepage

    Creepy is not the word for it 'Bullshit' is the word for it. The problem with the fantasy is the quality of the information in the database and the assumptions made in creating the links. It doesn't take long for the most innocent person to be linked with the most destructive activity, based upon how far those assumptions are stretched to create connection between records in the database.

    Then of course there are gross errors in the database things like false revenge based accusations, for profit accusations, reduced sentence accusations, now add in simple clerical errors, typos, misspellings and then tie faulty recognition, poor human memory and then of course just stupid stuff like people with the same name or foreign intelligence agencies poisoning data on purpose.

    Nett result, another billion dollar boondoggle on a dead end craptastic database. All works well with simulated data but in the real world, a world full of lies, trickery, deceit and of course laziness, it all just collapses. Of course a world full of 'Anonymous' types would just love to have fun poisoning that database with false data and ludicrous connections to accelerate the collapse.

  • Re:Hello (Score:4, Interesting)

    by milimetric ( 840694 ) on Sunday November 27, 2011 @02:21PM (#38182960) Journal

    How very shallow. I'm coming at this from a radical left perspective, but I happen to think it's good to think things through before pulling your hair out and running around like a crazy person screaming bloody murder.

    This story has no mention of any *new* civil liberties violations. Palantir *aggregates* existing data. If anything, this could help *limit* civil liberty violations. Palantir or a similar system means the government can actually use the data they are already collecting, which implies they can optimize it and get rid of spying tactics that never help deter crime. A logical person should probably agree that if there's a proven way to stop a crime from happening, it's in society's best interest to use it. The point of civil liberties isn't to protect criminals, it's to protect ourselves from the government's mistakes. I think Palantir will allow the government to make less mistakes and be more efficient.

Sigmund Freud is alleged to have said that in the last analysis the entire field of psychology may reduce to biological electrochemistry.