Last week, Forbes ran a profile of Alex Karp, CEO of Palantir and seriously spazzed-out individual. The piece was enlightening for its revelations on Palantir’s long-fingered influence, as well as a tad disturbing.
Palantir is the big-data startup to end all big-data startups: dreamed up by Peter Thiel, the company essentially translates large number sets for intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Palantir has been granted credit for the finding of Osama bin Laden, as well as for untangling J.P. Morgan’s mass of toxic assets following the 2008 fiscal meltdown.
Karp is not an engineer, and never was: he’s a philosopher, with a PhD from the University of Frankfurt and a law degree from Stanford, where he first met Thiel. Karp bummed around in Europe for a bit, “smoking things,” enjoying trysts with random women, and intermittently making a fortune through his investment fund, the Caedmon Group.
His route from investor to CEO is still fairly fuzzy, although his relationship with Thiel — who was a prime debating partner of Karp in their law school days — got his foot in the door. With minimal business background, Karp is apparently a natural at recruiting engineers, mapping business strategy, and pitching Palantir’s incredibly-complicated daily work to non-complicated organizations.
His iconoclasm is summed up when he says, “The only time when I’m not thinking about Palantir is when I’m swimming, practicing Qigong or during sexual activity.”
In a summer of increased scrutiny over government controlled-data, however, a few critics view Palantir’s role as threatening to democracy: the article details how Palantir works with the San Leandro Police Department in California to analyze unsuspecting citizen’s license plates, and also how a Palantir engineer threatened to track and subvert WikiLeaks conspirators who were aiming to leak confidential Bank of America information.
For his part, Karp seems to revel in the cloak-and-dagger operations: he has hired a 270-pound bodyguard, and regularly travels in thin disguises to avoid conspiracy theorists.
Sounds like a great company if you’re a techie, but a big question mark if you’re a community activist. Let us know your thoughts on Lord Karp and the Palantiri in the comments section.