Palantir lives the realities of its customers: the NSA, the FBI and the CIA–an early investor through its In-Q-Tel venture fund–along with an alphabet soup of other U.S. counterterrorism and military agencies. In the last five years Palantir has become the go-to company for mining massive data sets for intelligence and law enforcement applications, with a slick software interface and coders who parachute into clients’ headquarters to customize its programs. Palantir turns messy swamps of information into intuitively visualized maps, histograms and link charts. Give its so-called “forward-deployed engineers” a few days to crawl, tag and integrate every scrap of a customer’s data, and Palantir can elucidate problems as disparate as terrorism, disaster response and human trafficking.
Palantir’s advisors include Condoleezza Rice and former CIA director George Tenet, who says in an interview that “I wish we had a tool of its power” before 9/11. General David Petraeus, the most recent former CIA chief, describes Palantir to FORBES as “a better mousetrap when a better mousetrap was needed” and calls Karp “sheer brilliant.”
Among those using Palantir to connect the dots are the Marines, who have deployed its tools in Afghanistan for forensic analysis of roadside bombs and predicting insurgent attacks. The software helped locate Mexican drug cartel members who murdered an American customs agent and tracked down hackers who installed spyware on the computer of the Dalai Lama. In the book The Finish, detailing the killing of Osama bin Laden, author Mark Bowden writes that Palantir’s software “actually deserves the popular designation Killer App.”
And now Palantir is emerging from the shadow world of spies and special ops to take corporate America by storm. The same tools that can predict ambushes in Iraq are helping pharmaceutical firms analyze drug data. According to a former JPMorgan Chase staffer, they’ve saved the firm hundreds of millions of dollars by addressing issues from cyberfraud to distressed mortgages. A Palantir user at a bank can, in seconds, see connections between a Nigerian Internet protocol address, a proxy server somewhere within the U.S. and payments flowing out from a hijacked home equity line of credit, just as military customers piece together fingerprints on artillery shell fragments, location data, anonymous tips and social media to track down Afghani bombmakers.