Palantir exposed: Crikey reveals surveillance giant’s Aussie operations



blog If you’ve had an interest in the Internet surveillance and privacy world for a while, or, heck, just want to know how much your government is spying on you, you’ll be aware of the name ‘Palantir Technologies’. From being part of a plan to attack Wikileaks to aiding and abetting powerful interests from the finance sector to government with data mining information on individuals, Palantir seems to have its fingers in many pies these days. And now, according to a wide-ranging expose on the company published by Crikey, it has become clear that the firm is rapidly growing its operations down under. Crikey correspondent Bernard Keane writes (we recommend you click here for the full article):

“On the fourth floor of an office building on Northbourne Avenue, in what passes for Canberra’s CBD, is an outpost of a much talked-about company that has so far gone under the radar in Australia. It is, however, unlikely that many Australians have avoided the company’s forensic gaze.”

I’m very much in two minds about companies like Palantir. On one hand, it’s obvious that data mining techniques such as the company uses do exist and will continue to exist. Technology ever marches on, and there’s no way to regress, bury our heads in the sand and pretend that this kind of thing isn’t happening. The solution is, instead, to radically improve individuals’ personal technology security, while also pressuring governments to enact strong privacy legislation and make their law enforcement and intelligence agencies highly transparent.

However, I’m also conscious that this may not be enough to ensure that companies such as Palantir are able to collect data (so much data) on individuals, as well as providing tools to collect data. In this context, we also need to ask ourselves: Just because we have the technology, should we be using it, and to what extent? After all, governments globally have long had technology that they don’t use regularly. You don’t apply an atom bomb to every small war — you let it be fought with smaller arms. Palantir’s technology appears to represent an ‘atom bomb’ to destroy privacy. And we should be asking ourselves how, and under what circumstances, it should be allowed to be applied.

Image credit: Mateusz Stachowski, royalty free


  1. I have a question for the knowledgeable Delimiter audience:

    It seems to me that we have two ways to approach the issue of privacy. One is to apply restrictions to the collection of private information – such measures will be predominantly technological, with the aim of keeping secret things secret. This will be an ongoing multi-sided tug of war between individuals, companies and government bodies, and more power to them all.

    But I was wondering – are any efforts in place to restrict the use of private information? What I mean is a legislative framework that (for instance) restricts how a company could make use of my private information regardless of how they came into possession of it?

    I’m not up to speed with the legislation (if any) that governs this. But it seems crazy to me to base our privacy on technological and methodological definitions that will become obsolete over time.

    Is it even feasible to have legislative controls in the nature of “You can’t make use of an individual’s private information unless they have given you express permission to do so for that particular purpose.” ?

    Expertise requested. All I have is my own opinion right now :)

    • There is a third approach, though this one is probably impossible compared to the other two –

      Teach the public to not be stupid.

      I know, I know, ridiculous… But most of these problems arise because the average twit behaves like a cat on heat with every piece of personal minutiae their better halves or mothers don’t even know. Wave “free offer, just do this survey” and you’ll get more private info than a priest in a confessional.

      The knuckleheads have to break the exhibitionist habit – because really, that’s all it is. Start by –

      * poisoning your own data. Use different nick, birthday, location, gender etc. details wherever you go
      * resist doing stupid things like “how many of these have you (seen/heard/read/eaten) on our top 100 (whatever) list?”
      * make a sterile email box via a proxy/VPN/Tor that has no connection to your other addresses and use only it to register for services
      * acquaint yourselves with browser plugins like Ghostery – (no, I have no affiliation)

      There are more ways with some applied common sense. I know, I know, it is futile against concerted efforts to track you, but at least it’s something

    • @Haderak: In many ways our current privacy regulations do that.

      For example under the federal system, if the organisation is bound by the Privacy Act (>$3million revenue, government contractor, or health data — jurisdictional reasons), they can only use / disclose personal information [b][i]for the purpose it was collected[/b][/i]. Trumping this are all kinds of exemptions for national security, law enforcement, urgent threat to life, etc.

      It is difficult divorce data use from data collection. If you don’t know how and why it was collected, arguably you don’t have the right to use it.

      OAIC recently published a better practice guide for app developers that may be of interest:

  2. Palantir have hardly been hiding – as most of their customers have been the private sector prior to picking up some Govt contracts

    Crikey are just as bad as the broadsheets when they sex up their articles.

    • This.

      Also, Renai, Palantir are not the ones collecting data on Australian citizens – it’s the government departments that they are selling their software to.

      Perhaps the issue here isn’t really Palantir or even so much the Ministers for the departments .. Rather, the public servants in those departments who advise the ministers to implement the widespread intrusion into our lives whilst determining the minimal degree of transparency we have into the operations.

      When we get the Blue Book given to Turnbull, it won’t have been written or redacted by an elected official .. That will all be done by a Public Servant.

  3. Palantir has been used by the private sector for years – and there is less control over what the private sector does with the publicly harvested data than a Govt dept would even dream of doing

    I can think of at least 2 other applications in broader use within the private sector that harvest far more than what Palantir does

    Seriously, the fact that someone is getting hysterical over the use of this app just shows how little people know about how its been used for the last 10 years under various iterations.

    BTW, a public servant works to guidelines already in place and with oversight by not only the Depts legal advice, but follow on advice from Attorneys General – and the legal contractor for the Crown (who comes from the private sector

    More thought, less hysteria and more considered comment is useful in these articles

    Whats been said to date and presented as fact is a nonsense.

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