Palantir’s Tiberius, Race, and the Public Health Panopticon
The controversial data mining firm, whose history and rise has long been inextricably linked with the CIA and the national security state, will now use its software to identify and prioritize the same minority groups that it has long oppressed on behalf of the US military and US intelligence.
Operation Warp Speed, the “public-private partnership” created to produce and allocate COVID-19 vaccines to the American populace, is set to begin rolling out a mass-vaccination campaign in the coming weeks. With the expected approval of its first vaccine candidate just days away, the allocation and distribution aspects of Operation Warp Speed deserve scrutiny, particularly given the critical role one of the most controversial companies in the country will play in that endeavor.
Palantir Technologies, the company founded by Alex Karp, Peter Thiel, and a handful of their associates, has courted controversy for its supporting role in the US military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as its participation in the detention of “illegal” immigrants through their contracts with the Department of Homeland Security and in “predictive policing” law enforcement programs that disproportionately affect minority neighborhoods. Equally controversial, but perhaps lesser known, is Palantir’s long-standing and enduring ties to the CIA and intelligence community at large, which was intimately involved in the development of Palantir’s products that now run on the databases of governments and corporations around the world.
The same national-security state that Palantir has long aided in oppressing countries abroad and minorities domestically is now running Operation Warp Speed. While Palantir’s selection to manage the allocation of the vaccine to “priority groups” may just seem like the national-security state wanting to award the contract to a familiar and trusted company, the allocation strategy’s heavy focus on vaccinating minorities first, with questionable justification for doing so, suggests something else may have been behind Palantir’s selection to play a prominent role in Warp Speed.
Part 1 of this series on Operation Warp Speed and Race, “The Johns Hopkins, CDC Plan to Mask Medical Experimentation on Minorities as ‘Racial Justice,’” explored Warp Speed’s vaccine allocation plan in depth. That plan utilizes a phased approach aimed at “populations of focus” that had been identified in advance by various government organizations, including the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.
The main focus of this allocation strategy is to deliver vaccines first to racial minorities and in such a way as to make them feel “at ease” and not like “guinea pigs.” This is particularly glaring given that these minorities will be receiving an experimental vaccine that allocation-strategy documents admit is likely to cause “certain adverse effects . . . more frequently in certain population subgroups,” with research showing that those “subgroups” most at risk of experiencing adverse effects are these same racial minorities.
Part 1 also showed that the government believes information warfare and economic coercion will likely be necessary to combat “vaccine hesitancy” among these minority groups, rather than directly targeting the actual causes of this “hesitancy,” namely, by addressing past instances of illegal medical experimentation on minorities by the US government.
This report, the second part of this trilogy covering the racist underpinnings of key aspects of Operation Warp Speed, reveals the real factors behind Palantir’s rise to prominence as a national-security state contractor and the real reason why this company was chosen to identify the same “critical population” minority groups that it has been helping the US government oppress and surveil since the company’s inception.
On November 24, 2020, Secretary Alex Azar of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), a former Eli Lilly executive, announced that the department would begin conducting “practice runs” for Operation Warp Speed’s distribution networks in anticipation of HHS’s national roll out of a COVID-19 vaccine, which is set to begin in mid-December.
CNBC, reporting on Azar’s comments, noted that Tiberius, a software program developed and managed by Palantir, “will help the federal government allocate the amount of vaccines each state will receive,” and local officials will use Tiberius to “decide where every allocated dose will go—from local doctors’ offices to large medical centers.” According to that report and others, Tiberius would collect data from US government agencies, as well as from local and state governments, pharmaceutical firms, vaccine manufacturers, and companies like McKesson that have been contracted for the coming vaccine distribution.
Palantir’s role in Operation Warp Speed was only announced in late October, with mainstream news outlets such as the Wall Street Journal reporting that the company was creating a new software product that would manage the production and allocation of COVID-19 vaccines in the operation’s campaign. That mass of data will include “a wide range of demographic, employment and public health data sets” that will be used “to identify the location of priority populations” and make related decisions regarding the allocation of vaccine doses. Tiberius will also allow officials to “proactively identify distribution bottlenecks, inventory constraints, and gaps in administration across key populations.”
AFP confirmed the Wall Street Journal’s reporting and noted that Tiberius would provide Palantir with access to sensitive health information so that it could “help identify high-priority populations at highest risk of infection.” The Business Insider website noted that Tiberius would be capable of showing “areas with high proportions of healthcare workers, clinically vulnerable people . . . elderly people” or any other demographic deemed to be a “target population” by Operation Warp Speed. A separate report at Military.com quoted HHS’s deputy chief of staff for policy, Paul Mango, as stating that delivery timetables and vaccine-delivery locations were “being mapped out” by Tiberius, which enables officials to see how many people in a given “target population” are in any US zip code.
Palantir’s Tiberius uses the software that manages HHS Protect, a secretive database that hoards information related to the spread of COVID-19 gathered from “more than 225 data sets, including demographic statistics, community-based tests, and a wide range of state-provided data.” HHS Protect has been criticized by several public health experts and epidemiologists, among others, because of the sudden decision by HHS to force US hospitals to provide all data on COVID-19 cases and patient information directly to HHS Protect. Hospitals have been threatened with the loss of Medicare or Medicaid funding if they decline to regularly feed all of their COVID-19 patient data and test results into the HHS Protect database.
HHS Protect, notably, contains protected health information, which several US senators warned in July raises “serious privacy concerns.” According to a group of Democratic senators and representatives, “neither HHS nor Palantir has publicly detailed what it plans to do with this PHI [protected health information], or what privacy safeguards have been put in place, if any.” They added that they were “concerned that, without any safeguards, data in HHS Protect could be used by other federal agencies in unexpected, unregulated, and potentially harmful ways, such as in the law and immigration enforcement context.” Palantir is well-known for its controversial contract work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), part of the Department of Homeland Security that uses Palantir software in immigration raids.
HHS Protect is also controversial for its newly added artificial intelligence–driven “predictive” component, which “uses prewritten algorithms to simulate behaviors and forecast possible outcomes.” HHS has asserted that this AI component, called HHS Vision, was not built with software components purchased from Palantir, but with software from a smaller government contractor with close ties to IBM, another intelligence-linked tech giant.
In addition to the mass of information Palantir has access to through HHS Protect, the company is also a member of the COVID-19 Healthcare Coalition, a “collaborative private-industry response” involving Big Tech, NGOs, and health-care corporations that “share and leverage real-time data, best practices, and clinical expertise” for the official purpose of “preserving healthcare delivery” and “protecting people” during the coronavirus crisis. Other members, aside from Palantir, include Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Salesforce, and IBM as well as the CIA’s In-Q-Tel and the murky US intelligence contractor, the MITRE corporation. The massive amount of data shared by the coalition’s members, which also includes most major electronic health-record companies in the US, is aimed at “unlocking large-scale analytics for COVID-19.”
Tiberius, like HHS Protect, utilizes Palantir’s Gotham software, which has been “honed over a decade of partnership with military, civil, and intelligence communities,” according to Palantir’s product manager for Gotham, Ryan Beiermeister. In recent years, it has incorporated more aspects related to machine learning and artificial intelligence. According to Forbes, Gotham accumulates vast amounts of personal data that allow it to “map a person’s family members and business associates, as well as email addresses, phone numbers, current and previous addresses, bank accounts, social security numbers, and height, weight, and eye color.” It is usually favored by law enforcement and intelligence agencies and has been used (controversially) by several police departments, including in Los Angeles and New Orleans, as the cornerstone of “predictive policing” or precrime initiatives. A HHS spokeswoman stated that Tiberius will not use personally identifiable information.
Other reports have noted that Tiberius is involved to some extent in the clinical trials for COVID-19 vaccine candidates, which would also provide Tiberius with access to the data from those trials, including how various “population subgroups” react to a given vaccine candidate. As reported in Part 1 of this series, the Johns Hopkins guidance, on which the vaccine-allocation strategy was based, notes that it is likely that “certain adverse effects may occur more frequently in certain population subgroups.”
Those very subgroups with the greatest risk of experiencing adverse effects—ethnic minorities—are also the same subgroups set to be prioritized by the US government and identified by Tiberius to be vaccinated first during the official roll-out of Operation Warp Speed. Tellingly, those same ethnic minorities flagged by Johns Hopkins as priority groups are the same minorities that Palantir is best known for targeting through their controversial contracts with Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement and law enforcement agencies.
Palantir and the Militarization of Health Care
Tiberius is the most recent addition to—and perhaps the most emblematic—of Palantir’s moves into the growing field of “public health” surveillance. In addition to Palantir’s contracts related to HHS Protect, the company has also scored other COVID-19–related contracts with subdivisions of the HHS. As one example, it was Palantir that built the CDC web app for monitoring the spread of COVID-19, which has been actively collecting data since March 2020. The technology for this project was built on Palantir’s Foundry software and “takes in a range of anonymized data from US hospitals and healthcare agencies, including lab test results, emergency department statuses, bed capacity and ventilator supply.”
In early October, the National Institutes of Health Center for Advancing Translational Sciences awarded Palantir a $36 million contract for “enterprise data integration and data management,” giving the NIH the Foundry-based public health software as well. In addition, according to federal procurement records, the US Coast Guard contracted with Palantir in April to help with its COVID-19 Readiness System. Palantir’s contracting with the NIH preceded the COVID-19 crisis by a matter of months, with the company winning a NIH contract in January to provide “comprehensive data capabilities” for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, according to Forbes.
Palantir is also gaining comparable data access to the UK population. In March, the UK’s National Health Service awarded the company a $1.3 million contract to help develop its COVID-19 data store, with a similar mandate to help UK officials understand how to allocate resources appropriately. According to CNBC, “the NHS health records, which Palantir has gained access to, includes patient names, ages, addresses, health conditions, treatments and medicines, allergies, tests, scans, X-ray results, whether a patient smokes or drinks, and hospital admission and discharge information.” More recently, the NHS has been in talks for a little over a month with Palantir to see about the company playing a role in “sensitive” contact tracing. Aside from the UK, Palantir has claimed to be involved in the COVID-19 response efforts of at least ten other governments in addition to the US and UK.
These lucrative public health contracts are set to be a long-term boon for the company, which recently went public. As InvestorPlace explained in late November, “the re-emergence of the pandemic this fall and winter in the US and Europe will lift Palantir’s revenue.”
Meanwhile, just as Palantir has been acquiring “contact tracing” contracts throughout the Western world during 2020, the company has also been dramatically expanding its contracting work with the US military, which has also been playing an outsized role in the COVID-19 response, especially with Operation Warp Speed. Though the military has contracted with Palantir for years, the company has recently acquired more contracts than ever with the Department of Defense, and it has recently supplanted long-favored defense contractors, like Raytheon, winning several key bids.
In February 2020, Palantir was awarded a massive $823 million contract with BAE Systems for the US Army’s Distributed Common Ground System, and a month later the company was awarded a $80 million contract with the US Navy to create and manage a new logistics system. Then, in April, Palantir won a contract with the newly created US Space Force to build “a common operating picture of space.” At the end of November, Palantir was awarded a contract of an undisclosed sum by the Army’s Futures Command, a command focused on Army modernization with a heavy emphasis on AI and machine learning.
Palantir’s increasingly successful acquisition of top military contracts began in earnest last year. In March 2019, Palantir won an $800 million contract to build the Army’s new AI-driven “battlefield intelligence system.” Then, in October 2019, Palantir scored a two-year $91 million contract to develop AI and machine learning capabilities for the US Army Research Laboratory. The deal includes both their Foundry and Gotham products, with Foundry spotting and flagging “risks” and Gotham integrating multiple data sets into one. By the end of last year, Palantir had scored yet another multimillion-dollar contract with the military for the Army’s Project Vantage. Also, in December 2019, it was revealed that Palantir had taken over the Pentagon’s AI drone-assassination program, known as Project Maven, which had proved too controversial even for Google, the company that had originally won the Maven contract.
While it may seem odd that Palantir would simultaneously win massive contracts from health-care agencies and the military, the military has, in fact, been heavily driving the takeover of US health care by the national-security state during 2020. Through partnerships with other leading Silicon Valley firms, the Pentagon is playing a major role in the COVID-19 response through Warp Speed, but it also is involved in other public health efforts that are technically unrelated, including predictive cancer diagnoses and “fitness” wearables. In addition, HHS—under the leadership of the HHS assistant secretary for preparedness and response, Robert Kadlec—dramatically deepened its partnerships with the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) over the same period. Palantir not only fits right in with this larger Pentagon-led initiative to militarize health care nationwide but the company is at its core.
A Tool of Surveillance and Oppression
As the previously cited reports have detailed, Operation Warp Speed is being almost completely managed by the US military, along with the Department of Homeland Security and the National Security Agency (NSA), as opposed to civilian health agencies, which, as noted in Part 1 of this series, are significantly less involved than in previous national-vaccination efforts and have even been barred from attending some Warp Speed meetings. The DHS, NSA, and the military all have multimillion-dollar contracts with Palantir.
In July, a government chart was obtained by STAT that showed “that roughly sixty military officials—including at least four generals—involved in the leadership of Operation Warp Speed have never worked in health care or vaccine development.” One senior federal health official told STAT he was surprised by the number of soldiers in military uniform walking around the health department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. and said that recently he’d seen more than one hundred officials in the Warp Speed corridors wearing “Desert Storm fatigues.”
Given Palantir’s emerging role as the public health police, it’s worth taking a step back to examine its record of enabling the racism and the militarism of US state violence. As noted by the Guardian earlier this year, “Palantir is well known in the defense and policing worlds.”
Palantir has come under fire as a result of the company’s contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, including its creation an intelligence system used by ICE that is known as Investigative Case Management (ICM). The IB Times described ICM as “a vast ‘ecosystem’ of data to help immigration officials in identifying targets and creating cases against them” that also “provides ICE agents with access to databases managed by other federal agencies.” ICM further gives ICE access to “targets’ personal and sensitive information, such as background on schooling, employment, family relationships, phone records, immigration history, biometrics data, criminal records as well as home and work addresses.”
This $92 million relationship between ICE and Palantir should cause concern, considering Palantir will be in charge of allocating “tailored” COVID-19 vaccines to the same minorities they’re helping a militarized law enforcement agency target, “build cases against,” and deport. In addition, as noted in Part 1 of this series, Warp Speed is set to explicitly prioritize both incarcerated individuals and undocumented immigrants of color, meaning that those incarcerated in ICE detention facilities, many of whom were placed there as a result of Palantir’s other software, will also be flagged by Palantir’s Tiberius software.
Palantir’s work with ICE is hardly the sole reason controversies surround the company. It also has a close relationship with local law enforcement agencies and police departments across the country whom they supply with policing tools that overwhelmingly target minority groups. Some of those tools are “predictive,” meaning that they flag individuals who have not committed a crime but, according to Palantir’s data mining and algorithms, are “likely” to do so in the future. As noted by the Guardian in 2017, US law enforcement, in various parts of the country, have been using “Palantir to predict who will commit a crime by swooping Minority Report–style on suspects.”
Police departments that have used Palantir’s policing tools include but are not limited to the NYPD, LAPD, Chicago PD, Virginia State Police, and the New Orleans PD. Per its proponents, Palantir’s policing tools harness the technology of big data to help police departments “streamline” law enforcement, thereby enhancing efficiency. Critics, however, say Palantir’s tech creates “racist feedback loops” in which a “disproportionate amount of police resources are allocated to historically hyper-policed communities.”
Notably, Palantir’s predictive-policing methods were developed during the war in Iraq, a conflict where many legal red lines were crossed by the occupying forces. These aggressive policing techniques, forged during the fires of the so-called Global War on Terrorism, in which Iraqi citizens were almost completely denied their civil and human rights, are now being implemented in the US and elsewhere.
Palantir’s law enforcement tools crunch data and identify certain areas of cities or neighborhoods that should receive an uptick in police presence. The Palantir police technology can create “chronic-offender bulletins,” which attempt to predict and identify potential “repeat offenders” and problem areas.
After someone is deemed a possible or probable repeat offender, extra attention and enhanced surveillance techniques are deployed against that individual. Similarly, once an entire neighborhood is flagged by Palantir’s algorithms as densely populated with repeat offenders, the neighborhood is considered a “hotspot zone” and is then more heavily policed, increasing the chance that residents will be stopped for minor infractions.
The Stop LAPD Spying Coalition criticizes the technological assumptions that underlie Palantir’s algorithm-based policing as “pathologizing” individuals and entire neighborhoods. It says that the programs “enable the continuation of decades of discriminatory and racist policing under the apparent neutrality of objective data.”
Palantir’s policing tools also allow jurisdictions that normally would never communicate or share information to do so, resulting in a greater concentration of police power. As Wired noted, “When enough jurisdictions join Palantir’s interconnected web of police departments, government agencies, and databases, the resulting data trove resembles a pay-to-access social network—a Facebook of crime that’s both invisible and largely unaccountable to the citizens whose behavior it tracks.”
Of all Palantir’s predictive-policing efforts, arguably the most notorious took place in New Orleans. As revealed by The Verge in February 2018, Palantir had been secretly running a “predictive policing” pilot program for the New Orleans Police Department for six years and had been hiding it from the population of New Orleans and its city council. Key city council members were quoted as stating that they “had no idea that the city had any sort of relationship with Palantir, nor were they aware that Palantir used its program in New Orleans to market its services to another law enforcement agency for a multimillion-dollar contract.” Two weeks later, the press office of the outgoing New Orleans mayor, Mitch Landrieu, told the Times-Picayune that his office would not renew its “pro bono contract” with Palantir.
As Palantir’s role in “predictive policing” began to grow into a national controversy, another shady intelligence-linked company, Carbyne911—also funded by Peter Thiel— began contracting with police departments and emergency-service providers. Carbyne911, which received early investments from intelligence-linked figures such as Nicole Junkermann and the infamous Jeffrey Epstein, has stepped forward to take over what was once Palantir’s predictive-policing portfolio for counties throughout the country. As explored in this article, Carbyne911 has a predictive-policing component that is eerily similar Palantir’s.
In one recent example of Palantir-Carbyne baton passing, Carbyne911 entered into an agreement with the City of New Orleans this March, a deal that gave the company access to all emergency 911 call data and complete surveillance of those who call or interact with the city’s emergency-services system, without any accountability or limitations. Just a month later, the New Orleans Police Department installed police checkpoints across the city.
Yet, Carbyne911’s takeover of New Orleans in 2020 is not simply limited to 911 call-data collection. The company has also been involved in New Orleans official COVID-19 response from the very beginning. In March, Carbyne911 also claimed to be helping to “flatten the curve” in New Orleans.
Carbyne’s recent pivot into public health followed the tarnishing of the company’s public image over the past year, which was initially spurred by the Jeffrey Epstein scandal. After it was revealed that Epstein had invested a sizable sum in the company and that two of his close associates, Nicole Junkermann and former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, where Carbyne directors, the company became heavily scrutinized for its connections with Israeli intelligence.
Carbyne911 has since removed most of its original board of directors from public view in an effort to distance itself from Epstein-connected characters such as Junkermann and Barak and has also been using a company called Wowza to promote its services in an apparent effort to avoid further unwanted scrutiny.
Wowza Media Systems, which was founded in 2005 by David Stubenvoll and Charlie Good, partnered with Carbyne911 in 2015 to build what Wowza refer to as a “reliable, secure streaming ecosystem.” In June 2020, the CEO of Wowza admitted that “New Orleans uses Carbyne’s COVID-19 service to manage emergency calls and help individuals who have contracted the virus contact telehealth professionals instead of flooding emergency rooms. . . . Carbyne has been fielding 70 percent of the city’s emergency calls, a majority of which were related to COVID-19 symptoms.”
While the vast majority of Palantir’s original predictive-policing programs have been discontinued over the past two years, its services are being replaced by Carbyne911. From New York to New Orleans, it seems that when one Thiel company relinquishes its control over public data, another Thiel-backed company emerges to take the reins.
The Mentality behind Palantir
Aside from the company’s role in aiding the US national-security state target minorities, it is also worth exploring the views on race espoused by Alex Karp, Palantir’s CEO, and Peter Thiel, Palantir’s cofounder, board member, and person most often associated with the company in the media. In late October, the New York Times published a lengthy profile of Palantir with a particular focus on its CEO, Alex Karp. In that article, Karp expressed his life-long obsessive fear of being murdered due to his “amorphous” racial background and that this fear “propels a lot of the decisions” that are made at Palantir.
New York Times writer Michael Steinberger described Karp’s fear:
*“‘I still can’t believe I haven’t been shot and pushed out the window,” Karp told me. We were in Palantir’s New York office, located in the Meatpacking district. He wasn’t being literal, despite the office’s bulletproof windows and the bodyguards hovering nearby. Rather, he meant the feeling of inevitable doom that has plagued him since childhood. . . .
He intuited from a young age that his background made him vulnerable, he said. “You’re a racially amorphous, far-left Jewish kid who’s also dyslexic—would you not come up with the idea that you’re [expletive]?” Although he was now the head of a major corporation, neither time nor success had diminished the anxiety. If the far right came to power, he said, he would certainly be among its victims. “Who’s the first person who is going to get hung? You make a list, and I will show you who they get first. It’s me. There’s not a box I don’t check.” His fear, he said, “propels a lot of the decisions for this company.”*
A 2013 report published by Forbes noted that Karp has a 24/7 security detail that is explicitly there “to protect him from extremists.”
It is certainly telling that Karp’s longstanding and deep-seated fears of being targeted because of his ethnicity is a driving force behind many decisions that Palantir makes. Yet, while Karp professed to the New York Times that his fear is linked to a potential rise of “the far right,” this claim becomes doubtful when examining the politics and views of Karp’s close friend and Palantir cofounder, Peter Thiel.
A classmate of Thiel’s at Stanford and now best-selling author, Julie Lythcott-Haims, wrote in 2016that Thiel had told her back when they were at university together that “apartheid was a sound economic system working efficiently, and moral issues were irrelevant.” Lythcott-Haims went on to say that Thiel’s statements gave her the impression that he was “indifferent to human suffering or felt that oppressing whole swaths of humans was a rational, justifiable element of a system of governance.”
Though this is just one anecdote, Thiel’s own subsequent statements and actions support this portrayal of his views. For instance, as the New York Times recently noted, “Thiel has argued that democracy and economic freedom are incompatible and suggested that giving women the vote had undermined the latter.”
In regard to the claim about democracy and economic freedom, an August article from Reason on Thiel’s political views provides more insight. For instance, Thiel wrote in 2009 that “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible,” while a major ally of Thiel’s, blogger Curtis Yarvin, claimed that same year that democracy was “a precancerous growth always pregnant with some malignancy.”
Another influence on Thiel is German philosopher Carl Schmitt, a man infamous for his promotion of dictatorship as an inherently superior form of government. In a 2004 essay, Thiel used Schmitt’s statement that “the high point of politics are the moments in which the enemy is, in concrete clarity, recognized as the enemy” in reference to the direction “the West” should take in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. At the time, Thiel had lamented that “a direct path forward” to face down the post-9/11 enemy “is prevented by America’s constitutional machinery.” It goes without saying that, at the time of the September 11 attacks, “the enemy” was perceived largely along ethnoreligious lines.
Thiel has also been linked to “white nationalists” and the “far right fringe,” the very groups that fuel Karp’s deepest fears, while individuals closely connected to Thiel, such as Jeff Giesea, are prominent supporters of “alt-right” personalities such as Mike Cernovich and Andrew “weev” Auernheimer.
Thiel’s enduring close association with Palantir and his long-standing, close relationship with Karp discredits Karp’s claim that his fear of being murdered for his ethnicity is solely based on fear of the “far right,” given that Thiel is essentially the “far right” personified. Regardless of Karp’s real reasons for feeling so afraid, what is clear is that race is at the forefront of his thinking and, thus, at the forefront of much of Palantir’s company decisions.
By Jeremy Loffredo
Appeared on fml.lol