Palantir Now Fighting Human Traffickers, Instead of the U.S. Army

The sharp-elbowed, ultra-connected data mining firm Palantir may be best known around Washington these days for its war with Army over its intelligence software. But the company is also making inroads in Foggy Bottom, where it’s using its terror-hunting tech to help State Department fight human traffickers. And it’s getting assists from unlikely allies like ...

Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

The sharp-elbowed, ultra-connected data mining firm Palantir may be best known around Washington these days for its war with Army over its intelligence software. But the company is also making inroads in Foggy Bottom, where it's using its terror-hunting tech to help State Department fight human traffickers. And it's getting assists from unlikely allies like Google and LexisNexis.

Since 2012, Foggy Bottom's National Human Trafficking Resource Training Center and the Polaris Project, an NGO that fights human trafficking, have been using Palantir's software to analyze data they collect from victims and tipsters.

They use Palantir's software to identify patterns in information about traffickers and victims that are gathered by anti-trafficking hotlines around the globe. Basically, Palantir lets Polaris take information other anti-trafficking groups receive and put it into one large database -- making it easier to connect cases of trafficking, map trends, and create plans to combat trafficking operations in a specific area.

The sharp-elbowed, ultra-connected data mining firm Palantir may be best known around Washington these days for its war with Army over its intelligence software. But the company is also making inroads in Foggy Bottom, where it’s using its terror-hunting tech to help State Department fight human traffickers. And it’s getting assists from unlikely allies like Google and LexisNexis.

Since 2012, Foggy Bottom’s National Human Trafficking Resource Training Center and the Polaris Project, an NGO that fights human trafficking, have been using Palantir’s software to analyze data they collect from victims and tipsters.

They use Palantir’s software to identify patterns in information about traffickers and victims that are gathered by anti-trafficking hotlines around the globe. Basically, Palantir lets Polaris take information other anti-trafficking groups receive and put it into one large database — making it easier to connect cases of trafficking, map trends, and create plans to combat trafficking operations in a specific area.

All of this gives non-technical people a "view of the world as discrete objects, relationships and their describing data," according to the firm’s website.

Palantir isn’t the only tech firm that’s working with State and the Polaris Project to fight human trafficking. Google provided Polaris and similar NGOs — Liberty Asia and La Strada International — with $3 million to tie their hotlines together so they could use Palantir’s computing power to "identify illicit patterns and provide victims with more effective support," according to a State Department announcement about its 2013 report on human trafficking, which was released today.

LexisNexis also developed a tool allowing these organizations to quickly mine news articles from 6,000 worldwide sources for information on human trafficking.

As for the company’s fight with the Army, Plantir was used some troops in Afghanistan instead of the service’s existing tool designed to do similar things, the Distributed Common Ground System Army (DCGS-A; pronounced dee-sigs a, seriously).

When glowing reports of Palantir’s system began popping up in the Army, the backers of DCGS-A brought out the knives, even accusing the general who wanted Palantir sent to Afghanistan as having the firm ghost write his request to the Pentagon for the software. They also accused Palantir lobbyists of getting lawmakers to include cash for the software in wartime funding packages. Other Army documents knocking DCGS and insisting that Palantir should be used in Afghanistan were ordered destroyed and replaced with nearly identical documents save for the fact they don’t recommend Palantir.

This fight was behind Gen. Ray Odierno’s famous smackdown of Rep. Duncan Hunter during a House hearing earlier this year after the Congressman said the service was ignoring soldier complaints about DCGS. Army Secretary John McHugh said after the exchange that the service has purchased Palantir’s software and is integrating it into DCGS.

Despite Palantir’s reputation for providing spies with the tools they need to see everything – and clawing out the eyes of any bureaucrat that tries to stop ’em — it looks like this is a case where Palantir’s software is being used for something unmistakably good. Of course, that makes for good headlines, which can lead to more government contracts.

John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.

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