Palantir Technologies, a private big data analytics company helmed by Alexander Karp. The company’s name is derived from an artifact in The Lord of the Rings that allows people to see distant places. At first glance Alexander or Alex as he is mostly called carries little or no appeal. He has a high forehead with a seemingly receding hairline, with a thick mat of frizzled, graying hair. But little would one guess that his company developed the software that helped the intelligence community to hunt down Osama Bin Laden, America’s most wanted man. But how was that accomplished? The answer lies in the expert analysis of big data.
Through the analysis of big data, Palantir Technologies has emerged as the go-to company for law enforcement agencies in the United States. The company boasts of clients that include the NSA (National Security Agency), CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), the Pentagon and the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) along with a host of acronyms representing various government agencies.
Palantir was founded with an aim to address the problems related to assessing large and disjointed data sets. Located in Palo Alto, California, the seed money for the company was provided by Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal and one of the first major investors in Facebook. Alex Karp was actually brought on board a short while after the company was established. At the time, Karp was pursuing a Ph.D. in neoclassical social theory from the Frankfurt University. His advisor was the renowned German philosopher and sociologist, Jurgen Habermas. Thiel and Karp had been roommates when they were at Stanford University, and this was how Thiel knew where to find the right man for the job.
The idea for Palantir was a tough sell with both Karp and Thiel struggling to find backers. Finally, after years of running solely from the initial $30 million provided by Thiel, the company received funding from the CIA’s venture capital division called In-Q-Tel and also got them onboard as customers.
Palantir’s technology was used by the intelligence community, majorly by the Information Warfare Monitor to uncover the GhostNet and the Shadow Network, both of which were major Chinese espionage operations which had successfully targeted the Dalai Lama’s office, a NATO computer, and numerous national embassies and stole lots of sensitive information. Similar technology would also be used in 2010 by the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board successfully to combat fraud and lack of transparency. The then US Vice President Joe Biden publicly praised the company in a press conference.
Following this and the successful operation to find and kill Bin Laden, several government agencies wanted to use Palantir’s software. Some of them included the Department of Homeland Security, Centre for Disease Control, Marine Corps, Special Operations Command and West Point to name a few.
Palantir is valued at an amazing $20 billion and remains one of the most successful privately held companies in the world. Alex Karp does not have a technical background and is a lawyer by education, with a doctorate in social sciences. Yet, his uncanny ability to understand the challenges faced in technology and its applications have molded his company into an industry leader. It is through his pioneering vision and unwavering determination that his company has helped make the world a safer place.