One of Silicon Valley's most secretive companies is slowly becoming the data epicenter of the universe. Palantir, co-founded by Peter Thiel, Joe Lonsdale, Alex Karp, Stephen Cohen, and Nathan Gettings, builds software applications that use algorithms and data modeling to help organizations analyze data.
Karp, Palantir's CEO, was on his way to earning his PhD in social philosophy but after 9/11 he began thinking about a way to make the world a safer place. Here's what he had to say in a recent interview with Charlie Rose:
Terrorism is asymmetric. Asymmetry presupposes software because you are finding needles in haystacks... [Palantir] would allow humans to find needles in haystacks--so make the data intelligible to you and me, which it's not, and by doing that, it would allow them to find bad people trying to destroy our society, and could be used also to protect civil liberties by making the data so transparent that it is very clear what the government is doing and how they are doing it, which is a particular passion of our company.
Intelligence analysts say that Palantir's software is one of the best tools the government has ever had.
"There's so much data out there," says Dennis Murphy, a senior analyst at IHS Jane's, which tracks the defense industry. "The question is, How do you take that data to make it usable, then to make it knowledge, and then to make it wisdom? Palantir is at the cutting edge of how to get to the wisdom piece."
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, for instance, Palantir engineers developed a plug-in that let volunteers collect requests for assistance in real time using their smartphones. In 2012, a journalist used Palantir software to investigate illegal human tissue trafficking. It’s also being used to monitor terrorist networks: Palantir Gotham, a product developed for governments, has been used by the U.S. Special Operations Command, which oversees the Navy SEALs.
"Palantir is ultimately visualization technology," says Max Levchin, a PayPal co-founder and one of Inc.'s Audacious judges. "Its greatest value to date is that it helps decision-makers and people who need to come up with important, relatively fast judgment see a lot more than they would normally understand from perusing data."