With a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Frankfurt, and an early career as a money manager for high net-worth individuals, Alexander Karp isn’t the type of person you’d expect to run a top-tier American data analytics firm. He famously likes to list off all the reasons he isn’t qualified for his own position, from not holding a technical degree of any kind to his hippie parentage. Today, however, he and and co-founder Peter Thiel preside over Palantir, a $20 billion dollar intelligence operation with far-reaching ties to government organisations, banks, and corporate powers. Karp himself is estimated to be worth over $1.2 billion dollars.
From Paypal to the CIA
Palantir wasn’t born in the mind of Alexander Karp, but rather Peter Thiel of PayPal. Thiel saw the immense potential in PayPal’s innovative fraud prevention methods, and sought to find a way to identify terrorists without violating the privacy of the public. Bankrolled by Thiel, a handful of talented programmers and engineers put together an initial product, and began looking for customers.
Karp was brought on as acting CEO by Palantir’s young technical team, initially more to lend his reputation as a successful investor and the weight of his PhD than to make serious decisions for the company. Contrary to their expectations, Karp impressed the team with his ability to quickly grasp and explain complex and foreign concepts to non-engineers. He soon made himself indispensable both through his ability to find and recruit top-level talent and his talent for advocating the business’ mission to laypeople.
While American venture capitalists seemed uninterested, a few European angel investors, and later In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital arm, eventually invested the capital Palantir needed to establish itself and to optimise and develop their product.
Taking corporate America by storm
After its testing and development phase, which lasted until 2008, the company worked exclusively with government agencies like the CIA, FBI, and NSA as well as some major police departments, until 2010. In 2010, they established a relationship with JPMorgan, which would become their first commercial client. This effectively brought the business back to their roots —catching fraudsters, identity thieves, and hackers.
In the following years, Palantir has expanded into the commercial market to offer their services in a host of industries, from pharmaceutical firms to mass media companies. The identities of their clients are closely guarded, but revenues from private sector clients now make up 60% of their total business.
Karp’s philosophy of intelligence
Contrary to what one might expect from the founder of a major intelligence contractor, Karp is not a data analyst, and he has never served Palantir in a technical capacity. Instead, his role is loosely defined as the business’ “conscience”, and his mission is to preserve their idealistic core. He applies his PhD in the social theory, his dedication to liberal values, and Peter Thiel’s libertarian ideas to make decisions about which contracts to accept, and which to reject. In recent years that has meant turning down clients worth about 20% of their possible revenue on ethical grounds.
Protecting the public
While critics often place Palantir at the center of a future dystopian all-knowing corporate police-state, both Karp and Thiel speak out strongly in favour of the right to privacy and data security. To that end, Karp has installed some major security safeguards to discourage misuse of their software. Data is catalogued and tagged to limit who has access to sensitive information, and the so-called “immutable log” tracks and permanently saves records of every person who accesses any given data in their systems. Additionally, the business has an anonymous internal hotline that allows employees to report clients who they suspect are behaving in an unethical manner.
Too invasive for comfort?
Critics of Karp and Palantir hold that these measures are still wholly inadequate. With no one responsible for actively auditing this immutable log, and no third party authorities empowered to limit and regulate the use of Palantir’s data, the business is essentially left to regulate itself.
Karp himself agrees, in a sense, and has postulated that this is necessarily a temporary state of affairs. He claims that an independent regulatory body will inevitably be created to monitor all American surveillance activities and strike a balance between the privacy of private individuals, and the security of the public. As critics continue to raise concerns, Karp holds firm to the ideal that a future in which data is surveilled and managed responsibly needs to be built today, by people with ethical convictions, to keep public corporations or governments with dangerous far-reaching interests from developing and abusing these technologies in their own time.