Civil Liberties

The Silicon Valley Firm That Spies On Non-Profits Is Seeking Investors

The $9 billion company claims it supports privacy rights and free speech, but it charges clients up to $2 million a month to spy on activists.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Zhukov Oleg

This week Whitney revealed that many of the firms hired to infiltrate nonprofit organizations on behalf of corporations have their own revolving door of former government intelligence personel from CIA, NSA, DOJ, and more. These firms were identified in an exhaustive Center for Corporate Policy report, Spooky Business, which included a particular story about a group of these firms that referred to themselves as “Team Themis.” As CCP reported, Team Themis, led by HBGary Federal, a computer security firm, sent a proposal to Hunton & Williams law firm with an outline to infiltrate the nonprofit critics of its client, the US Chamber of Commerce. The array of unethical actions proposed by Team Themis is truly outstanding; infiltrate the nonprofit with a fake insider, wage electronic warfare, investigate staff and their families, and utilize former US military and intelligence staff to carry out operations.

How much does such a comprehensive strategy cost? According to CCP, Team Themis’ proposal came with a price tag of $200,000 per month for initial research and $2 million monthly for a full campaign.

Following Wikileaks’ threat to expose a scandal at a top US bank, Team Themis sprang into action and outlined another proposal for Hunton & Williams on a strategy to “destroy” Wikileaks. According to CCP’s documents that strategy included:

•    Spread “disinformation” about WikiLeaks;

•    “Submit fake documents and then call out the error.” In other words, forging documents, giving them to WikiLeaks, and then exposing them as false, to undermine Wikileaks’ credibility;

•    Execute “[c]yber attacks against the [WikiLeaks] infrastructure to get data on document submitters”. Palantir, HBGary and Berico believe that this would “kill” WikiLeaks.

•    An implicit threat to ruin the career of Glenn Greenwald, a prominent journalist, if he continues to support WikiLeaks.

These guys were, at least in print, very serious in their intent to spy on and disrupt these nonprofits. So why the jaunty name? For those, unlike myself, who were lucky enough not to take ancient greek in high school, Themis was the titan goddess of divine law and order (at the time social control by the gods), and a wife and counselor of Zeus. Somebackground to make you feel uncomfortable:

She was the divine voice (themistes) who first instructed mankind in the primal laws of justice and morality, such as the precepts of piety, the rules of hospitality, good governance, conduct of assembly, and pious offerings to the gods. In Greek, the word themis referred to divine law, those rules of conduct long established by custom.

Who are the gods to Team Themis and what are their “pious offerings”? Based on the Center for Corporate Policy’s report, it’s anyone with a few million and your data, respectively of course.

Team Themis was back in the news Thursday when Forbes revealed that one prominent member, Palantir Technologies, is seeking a $9 billion dollar valuation in its latest funding round. Palantir develops many different software applications that are largely used by the US Government and intelligence community (from 2005 to 2008, the CIA was their only customer). The name Palantir comes from the seeing stones in Lord of the Rings, which a certain PAI data specialist describes as a communication and tracking tool that, when in control of Sauron, allows him to see into the minds of his enemies. Apt to say the least.

But it’s clear from the fact that Palantir staff call their California office “the shire” that they see themselves on the other end of the seeing stone. The challenge of maintaining this good guy self image was clear when CEO Alex Karp personally apologized for Palantir’s role in the Wikileaks/Team Themis scandal and pledged support of “progressive values and causes”. From his statement:

The right to free speech and the right to privacy are critical to a flourishing democracy. From its inception, Palantir Technologies has supported these ideals and demonstrated a commitment to building software that protects privacy and civil liberties.

Palantir’s other co-founder and chairman, Peter Thiel, is a well known libertarian and generous, seven-figure donor to Ron Paul super PAC Endorse Liberty and limited government organization, Club for Growth. From his 2009 essay for the Cato Institute, The Education of a Libertarian:

I remain committed to the faith of my teenage years: to authentic human freedom as a precondition for the highest good. I stand against confiscatory taxes, totalitarian collectives, and the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual. For all these reasons, I still call myself “libertarian.”

It’s interesting to compare these libertarian fixations to what Palantir’s critics say about the company:

“They’re in a scary business,” says Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Lee Tien. ACLU analyst Jay Stanley has written that Palantir’s software could enable a “true totalitarian nightmare, monitoring the activities of innocent Americans on a mass scale.”

I for one find it odd that a company with a CEO espousing progressive ideals and a co-founder obsessed with libertarianism would sell services that could be used to take down people and organizations that disrupt their clients. Aren’t they then working against the individual, in the interest of state control?

Karp is less concerned:

Karp, a social theory Ph.D., doesn’t dodge those concerns. He sees Palantir as the company that can rewrite the rules of the zero-sum game of privacy and security. “I didn’t sign up for the government to know when I smoke a joint or have an affair,” he acknowledges. In a company address he stated, “We have to find places that we protect away from government so that we can all be the unique and interesting and, in my case, somewhat deviant people we’d like to be.”

My guess is that deviants didn’t sign up for the government OR the US Chamber of Commerce to know when they smoke a joint or have an affair, but Palantir has shown it has the capacity to supply that pious offering to its gods.