The Violence of Algorithms
In December 2010 I attended a training session in Tysons Corner Virginia – just outside Washington DC – for an intelligence analytics software program called Palantir.
Co-founded by Peter Thiel – a libertarian Silicon Valley billionaire from PayPal and Facebook – Palantir is a slick tool kit of data visualization and analytics used by the NSA – FB – CIA – and other US national security and policing institutions. As far as I could tell I was the only civilian in the course – which I took to explore Palantir’s potential for use in academic research.
Palantir is designed to pull together as much data as possible – then tag it and try to make sense of it. For example, all of the data about a military area of operation – including base maps – daily intelligence reports – mission reports – and the massive amounts of surveillance data now being collected – could be viewed and analyzed for patterns in one platform. The vision being sold is one of total comprehension – of making sense of a messy operating environment flooded with data. The company has a Silicon Valley mentality: War is hell. Palantir can cut through the fog.
The Palantir trainer took us through a demonstration ‘investigation’. Each trainee got a workstation with two screens and various datasets: a list of known insurgents – daily intelligence reports – satellite surveillance data – and detailed city maps.
We uploaded these into Palantir one by one – and each new dataset showed us a new analytic capability of the program. With more data came greater clarity – which is not what usually happens when an analyst is presented with vast streams of data.