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  1. Science & Tech
6 August 2019updated 23 Jun 2021 6:38am

How Peter Thiel’s Palantir quietly won £10m of MoD contracts

By Oscar Williams

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has quietly awarded more than £10m of contracts to a controversial surveillance company set up by the Paypal billionaire and Trump supporter Peter Thiel, the New Statesman has found. 

The awards have been issued discreetly over the last four years to Palantir as the company has attracted scrutiny for its work using AI to support US intelligence, military and law enforcement agencies.

But while Palantir has become a lightning rod for unease about Silicon Valley’s role in supporting controversial federal work in the US, its partnerships with the MoD have never previously been reported.

A contract notice identified by the New Statesman through Tussell’s procurement database shows that Palantir won a £1.7m contract last year to help the MoD stem the tide of staff leaving the Royal Navy.

The contract reveals that Palantir’s software is being used to conduct “personnel data manipulation to discover reasons for voluntary outflow rates and enable the [Royal Navy] to develop possible solutions”.

spreadsheet of MoD expenditure identified by the New Statesman also reveals that Palantir won £9m of contracts in the 2015-16 financial year. A spokesperson for the ministry refused to disclose details about the nature of the work, citing defence procurement regulations and national security concerns. Palantir declined to comment.

While much of Palantir’s work with the British government is shrouded in secrecy, a page on the company’s website sheds some light on its work in the defence space. It states: “Palantir Defense allows warfighters to interact with all of their data from all of their systems from a single point of access, in unprecedented ways.

“Unstructured message traffic, structured identity data, link charts, spreadsheets, telephony, documents, network data, sensor data—even full motion video can be searched simultaneously and intuitively, without the need for a specialized query language.”

Palantir’s technology has been linked to a number of controversial US government projects, including NSA surveillancethe mission to locate Osama bin Laden and the detention of migrants at the American border. In March, the company won an $800m (£657m) contract to develop a battlefield intelligence platform for the US army.

Darren Jones, a Labour MP and member of parliament’s science and technology committee, criticised the culture of secrecy surrounding Palantir’s work with the government.

“It’s important that our armed forces have the most advanced tools available, but we must also be responsible about the development of autonomous and artificially intelligent systems,” Jones told the New Statesman. “Because of the lack of transparency around these contracts, we have no idea what Palantir is providing to the Ministry of Defence and we’re therefore unable to hold the government to account on whether it’s acting in a responsible and ethical way.”

In recent years, Palantir has significantly expanded its European operations. At the centre of this work is the company’s London office, located in Soho Square, which employs around 550 staff from sales executives to engineers. According to a recent Forbes report, it is now larger than its global headquarters in Palo Alto, California.

Marissa Kimball, who works in business development at Palantir, told the CogX AI festival in London in June that the company had seen “massive growth in Europe in the last seven years, and it continues to be our largest source of growth”. Palantir is seeking to expand its work with the UK government and is listed on a number of national technology frameworks. The Cabinet Office awarded the company a £741,000 contract in 2015 to provide an “enterprise analytical platform and intelligence service”.

Palantir was named after an all-seeing orb possessed by Sauron, the arch-villain of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The company is backed by the CIA, worth an estimated $11bn and is expected to list on the stock market later this year.

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