The CEO of Palantir took a big swipe at Silicon Valley on Tuesday as the software and data analysis company submitted its paperwork to go public, aligning itself with its government clients and deriding a perceived culture of elitism in the Bay Area.
In a letter included in Palantir’s S-1 filing, CEO Alex Karp painted a portrait of Big Tech as fair-weather partners of the public sector and socially disconnected from reality. He sneered at what he described as a commercial data-mining industry out of control, while portraying Palantir — which itself has been criticized for empowering government spying — as a principled actor.
“Our society has effectively outsourced the building of software that makes our world possible to a small group of engineers in an isolated corner of the country,” Karp wrote. “The engineering elite of Silicon Valley may know more than most about building software. But they do not know more about how society should be organized or what justice requires.”
Palantir embraces the “ethical challenges” underpinning the creation of “software platforms that enable more effective surveillance by the state of its adversaries,” Karp wrote, implying that his company takes a much different stance on those moral questions compared to other tech companies.
Karp’s dismissive comments come against the backdrop of a widening cultural backlash led by tech workers against government contracts they view as unethical. In response to employee activism, large tech companies have in some cases retreated from their business with the US. Google has backed away from Project Maven, a military artificial intelligence initiative, while Amazon and Microsoft employees have protested their employers’ work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
But Palantir — founded by venture capitalist and Trump ally Peter Thiel — has been committed to serving defense and intelligence agencies from the beginning, said Karp, and will never waver in that mission.
“Our software is used to target terrorists and to keep soldiers safe,” he wrote. “We have chosen sides, and we know that our partners value our commitment. We stand by them when it is convenient, and when it is not.”
As part of its work with the US government, Palantir has reportedly helped the Department of Health and Human Services track the spread of the coronavirus. But civil liberties and immigration advocates have also raised alarm bells about Palantir’s work to facilitate domestic surveillance; the company has reportedly provided digital profiling tools to ICE in what has become one of its biggest controversies.
In its S-1, Palantir acknowledged the public criticism, disclosing it to investors as a potential risk to its business. But it also defiantly warned that giving into activist demands or wavering under critical media coverage could also pose a risk to investors.
“Terminating our contracts or refusing a particular product use case could harm our brand and reputation,” the filing warned.
The disclosure highlights the tightrope Palantir seeks to walk as it both attacks the wider tech industry for its brand of surveillance capitalism while defending its own right to build a business monitoring people for defense and law enforcement clients.
On Tuesday, Karp, who has previously swung at an alleged Silicon Valley “monoculture,” sought to shift the focus back onto commercial surveillance.
“Software projects with our nation’s defense and intelligence agencies, whose missions are to keep us safe, have become controversial, while companies built on advertising dollars are commonplace,” he wrote. “For many consumer internet companies, our thoughts and inclinations, behaviors and browsing habits, are the product for sale. The slogans and marketing of many of the Valley’s largest technology firms attempt to obscure this simple fact.”