Pando

Twitter says it won't help build Trump's Muslim database. But what about this guy?

By Paul Bradley Carr , written on December 9, 2016

From The Security Desk

Late last week, the Intercept, the national security blog owned by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, published a fun and provocative story.

Reporter Sam Biddle contacted nine tech companies and asked if they’d help Donald Trump build his muslim database if they asked him to.

The headline said it all: OF NINE TECH COMPANIES, ONLY TWITTER SAYS IT WOULD REFUSE TO HELP BUILD MUSLIM REGISTRY FOR TRUMP

Well, it sort of said it all.

In fact, of the companies contacted for comment -- Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, Google, Apple, IBM, Booz Allen Hamilton,  SRA International, CGI  -- only three sent any kind of response at all. One of those three, Booz Allen Hamilton (former employer of Intercept-source Edward Snowden) declined to comment and Microsoft gave a waffly corporate answer that ““it will remain important for those in government and the tech sector to continue to work together to strike a balance that protects privacy and public safety in what remains a dangerous time.”

Only Twitter actually gave a straight answer: “No.”

Kudos Twitter. (Now perhaps you could show actual bravery by holding Trump’s twitter account to the same standards as everyone else’s.)

I’ve been critical of Biddle in the past - at Gawker he routinely missed actual wrongdoing by tech billionaires (including his new boss, Omidyar) while obsessing with trying to create a class war against junior techies. The most high profile result of that jaw-droppingly hypocritical campaign: The hounding of Justine Sacco, a low-level PR for a tech company who received murder and rape threats over a tweeted joke.  For details of Biddle’s central role in the Gamergate-style shaming of Sacco, Jon Ronson’s “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” is a must read.

Still, on this latest story, Biddle’s instincts are right. Rather than encouraging people to throw rocks at buses, he is actually aiming his fire at the leaders of the most powerful companies on earth. Even absent direct answers, merely asking the question puts those companies on notice that they’re being watched closely by reporters and the public.  Credit where it’s due, the story was a good idea, solidly executed.

And yet, there was one glaring omission in Biddle’s reporting.

Where the hell was Palantir?

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m sure Apple would be a valuable partner for Trump’s Muslim registry - designing a beautiful neck-barcode scanner? Building an infuriating software interface that makes it impossible to locate the Muslim you’re actually looking for? But surely a private defense/intelligence contractor like Palantir is a far, far more logical choice of vendor?

For one thing, building shit like this for government and law enforcement is precisely what Palantir does. From the company’s website:

Preventing terrorist attacks. Preparing for major political and economic transformations. Anticipating emerging threats. Intelligence organizations have been charged with high stakes missions. Unfortunately, predicting the future remains a hard problem. The best way to stay ahead of adaptive threats and disruptive events is to enable low-friction interaction between domain experts and high-quality information. Intelligence officers need an intuitive way to extract insight from massive-scale data of disparate types, from signals intelligence to unstructured data. They need to enrich the raw data with their analytic insight, so others can benefit from the work of their colleagues.

Wouldn’t you at least ask them for comment before you pinged… Twitter?

Oh, and then there’s the other obvious reason to think Palantir might get a plum contract from Team Trump: Palantir’s co-founder and largest shareholder Peter Thiel (also a Pando investor via Founders Fund, oh lucky us) is a member of Trump’s transition team and, as I’ve written ad nauseum, is busily packing the incoming administration with his own buddies.

OH, AND: As BuzzFeed reported last month, Gen. Michael Flynn, now Trump’s National Security Advisor and so likely the guy who will be charged with building the database, has also acted as an unpaid advisor to Palantir.

The omission of Palantir from Biddle’s story makes absolutely no sense…. until you remember that Thiel’s pet attorney, Charles Harder, sued Biddle’s previous employer into oblivion. Harder only recently removed Biddle’s name from a list of plaintiffs his clients were suing directly.

Like the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, Thiel’s lawsuits are based on movement so who can blame Biddle for wanting to stay very still, and not shine any kind of flashlight towards Thiel’s business dealings.

But no matter! I’m always happy to help out the hardworking journalists at the Intercept. So yesterday I emailed Palantir myself to ask the question, even cribbing from Biddle’s preferred wording:

Mr Trump has suggested creating a registry of Muslims living inside the US. Given Mr Thiel’s role at Palantir and the Trump administration, and Palantir's expertise in managing and analyzing data for government and law enforcement, it would seem logical that you might be approached to assist with building or managing the Muslim registry…

Would Palantir, if solicited by the Trump administration, sell any goods, services, information, or consulting of any kind to help facilitate the creation of a national Muslim registry in the US?

For good measure, I also asked: “Will a representative of Palantir be attending Mr Thiel’s meeting with tech founders, arranged on behalf of Mr Trump,  next week?”

And guess what….?

Palantir hasn’t replied!

Or as the Intercept might put it: PALANTIR WON’T PROMISE TO REFUSE TO HELP BUILD MUSLIM REGISTRY FOR TRUMP.

So there you have it.

I’ll update this post if I hear back from Palantir, or if Charles Harder sends me a menacing letter on behalf of his client, and our investor, Peter “just the fucking worst” Thiel.

Meantime, here’s a fun fact: Harder previously worked at the law firm of famed celebrity attorney Marty “Mad Dog” Singer. The same Marty Singer who once threatened to sue Pando for as much as $300m over our entirely accurate reporting on Chris Christie’s crony, Anthony Melchiorre. According to Forbes, Singer also previously sued Gawker. The world of high stakes truth-crushing is truly a tiny one.