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Just don't expect any answers to serious questions.

Like to what extent their software is used in planning drone strikes and other military operations. And what, exactly, Palantir knows about the number of civilians killed and maimed in these operations. Let alone how any of the engineers working there, behind their hoodies and their high-end headphones -- perhaps reading this very thread right now, as we speak -- personally feel about this situation.


Let me ask, and mostly for my own edification as this has come up before, what's the link between Palantir and actual drone strikes or something like "Palantir knows about the number of civilians killed and maimed in these operations."

From my reading on Palantir they seem like a big data mining company. Sure, they can try to grab a ton of data and try to show some correlations but somewhere there must be someone reading that information and making decisions, right? It's not like Palantir is carrying out drone strikes by itself (or at least I can't find any reference to this).

Yeah, Palantir is used by the military and it's a bit closer to the action than MS Word (Used in planning 100% of drone strikes!/snark), but it's not a drone strike-ing software, it's a data mining system. It's also used extensively in the finance industry. No one is getting a surprise hellfire delivery because Palantir spits out a kill order. Also it's used extensively across the military, intelligence, and finance worlds for a bunch of stuff and drone stuff makes up a very small part of two of those worlds.

I don't/never have worked for Palantir (I've heard it's very cultish fwiw so I've never applied). I have used their software though (not for drones), and it is actually pretty awesome, so I can't speak to their software quality but their product team was doing solid at least.

Also I really can't conceive as to why Palantir would have information regarding civilian casualties or anything else from their clients' data. There's about 0% chance that the government would allow a private contractor to hold that data (obviously if it were being tracked it would be on the copy running in production but Palantir wouldn't own that data).

Every time that Palantir comes up on HN people go crazy about the overreach and the Palantir "drones" flying around killing everyone, but it seems to me like the military side of Palantir is really just a giant correlation machine...so what's wrong with that?

Yes, perhaps it's output is used at some point when deciding something about a drone strike (although I can't find a source for this), but I'm not sure why the sentiment about this is so incredibly negative?

Because the government is evil man. I half seriously want to see if you could get people to protest MS Word's ubiquitous use in overreaching government programs.

I think it has to do with a bit of iceberg effect. The part that shows up in news articles is all outrage inspiring so any mention of it becomes so just by association.

I think it's kind of similar how for some reason every time I say I like Hemingway the only response is "he was sexist". Sure, especially so if you reapply modern norms out of temporal context, however a) it doesn't add a lot to the conversation that wasn't covered in middle school english, and b) it's hardly a whole treatment of the originator of a rather large body of creative work. People jump to it because it's an easy opinion to hold and kinda makes it sound like they've done the thinking about it (which to be fair, maybe they have and have determined that to be the only relevant facet of the author).

Similarly the "Drones!" response is a) nothing that isn't true of many other systems, and b) not a full representation of Palantir's uses. It's hard to get voted down for being cynical on the internet, and it shows that the author has read a WashPo article or two about drones and Palantir, but again, maybe they've researched the company and the product fully and determined the only relevant thing is that there probably exist drone targeting packages informed by the use of the software.

I might be the only one here who is ignorant on this topic, but...

What's the general gist of what Palantir's software does? What's the input and what's the output?

Super simple overview as I understood how it worked (I'm not an expert so please correct if I am in error).

1. feed it a ton of documents

2. either procedurally (ideally) and/or manually (a la wikipedia but with a fast interface) link between them.

3. Also create entities, so like, maybe Bernie Madoff is an entity, and there are companies that are owned by him, those companies might have phone numbers. (totally bullshitting this example so please ignore legal, investigative, factual nonsensicality)

4. You keep putting all the docs you run across into the system as you go and one day you put in a doc from an investigation of a shady shell corp. One of the phone numbers listed is recorded as a Madoff company's number and you see that as you load in the doc. Either it's relevant for you or the next person to go look for info about Madoff would see it. That connection might never get made without the built up knowledge base and auto-associative kind of features.

I always looked at it like a super easy to use wiki or document database that had investigatory tools built on top of it. The search was really well done and following relationships was easy. Granted I was comparing the experience to other gov't software, the fact that it worked almost all the time and didn't drive me to script my interactions with it pretty much alone made it my favorite. So Palantir might objectively suck and I was just so mired in terrible that it looked relatively stellar, but I remember it as useful and easy to use.

I see. Thank you for that. I appreciate it. I guess it brought a few more questions to mind for me.

As a customer of Palantir, am I responsible for creating the document parsers that understand the relationships between entities or is their software able to recognize data types in the inputs automatically? Is the software generic or customized for each customer that comes in the door?

I don't actually know. I never really went into the sausage making room on that one but I got the following impressions. Palantir seems to do the parsers though I didn't see any reason why the client couldn't other than not having programmers on staff (though there could be a training course and associated revenue! :p). Seems like they already had a ton of stuff built out of the box (people, phone numbers, buildings, etc) just because they're predictable since they had cute[0] little icons that were clearly designed as a collection, but it's not like I saw a clean build get set up. Seemed like there were varying degrees of customization available, but I never got to see how that was done (now I'm curious, wish I had bugged someone about it).

[0] I know it's an odd description but I think it puts the right idea in your head. Look at the little desperado/mystery man icon: https://www.palantir.com/wp-assets/wp-content/static/techblo...

Thanks again. That cleared it right up for me.

The basic point is that Palantir's ties with intelligence and military branches are quite extensive -- and at one point they openly boasted about the success in helping both the Marines and Special Forces get various kinds of stuff (never exactly specified) done on the ground in Afghanistan -- such that it'd be surprising if they weren't involved in the Drone program in some fashion, at this stage.

All very true. If you really couldn't sleep at night knowing that it was a really useful tool for US/US aligned military and intel operations, you probably don't want to work there, but I'm not even sure their devs need clearances for the most part.

I just wanted to point out that their product is pretty awesome and I sometimes feel compelled to try to temper what I perceive as innuendo (vice fact) powered comments towards the national security community. There's plenty of real cause for anger (including billions wasted on software that doesn't work), a really good network analysis tool isn't one. Perhaps I saw innuendo where none existed, but certainly agree with what you've said here.

One of their big projects was helping forces predict the locations of IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan [1]. It did a better job at aggregating all the intel they were getting on IEDs into a unified interface and platform that let ground commanders ensure their soldiers left knowing all the risks and possible bomb locations.

[1] http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/jul/16/military-has...

OK - but what do we about the extent to which they (may be) involved in drone attacks?

Or in identifying "terrorist" targets generally?

I think I'm missing the gist of your argument and I see it going one of two ways.

1) Drone Program / Terrorist Hunting / intelligence = bad therefore companies helping with intelligence gathering / processing = bad/nefarious?

2) Software used by the government to execute programs some might disagree with is tainted/bad therefore we should boycott it/protest against it?

There are hundreds if not thousands of government contractors providing similar services to the Govt, albeit quietly and behind the scenes. The only reason Palantir gets a lot of press is they do it better than most other people and they aren't based in the DC area. If we're supposed to "do something about Palantir" what are we supposed to do about the rest of them?

Palantir et al. aren't in the control room pushing the big red button or even doing the actual terrorist "hunting". They provide a platform that lets the people doing the analyzing/hunting to quickly and efficiently process data they already have. As the article points out, Palantir didn't add data to the system, it just made searching it and sorting it more efficient than having to log into 3 separate systems and search them out.

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