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When the secretive data start-up Palantir Technologies starts trading on the New York Stock Exchange tonight, we’ll get an early picture of how irresistible, how valuable, the market finds all the data that governments hold on us.

In its prospectus for tonight’s launch, Palantir says it aims to grow by “becoming the default operating system across the US government” and “to pursue significant expansion of our government work with US allies abroad”. 

Enter Australia, where government tenders show it has provided more than $40 million in software services, mainly to the Department of Defence, the Australian Signals Directorate and the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, since 2013. 

In 2017, the Australian Transaction and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC) adopted Palantir software to help track money laundering. Earlier this year, Palantir added former Labor MP Mike Kelly to the payroll of its Australian arm.

It’s all only a start for Palantir. Its prospectus estimates governments across the US, its allies and other liberal democracies spend about 5% of expenditure on software related services. It reckons it can take a market share of about US$68 million, most of it from outside the US. 

Its prospectus is part Bush neo-con and part Trump MAGA: “We have chosen sides. Our software is used by the United States and its allies in Europe and around the world. Some companies work with the United States as well its adversaries. We do not.”

Palantir is a tech unicorn — a privately owned tech company worth more than US$1 billion. Analysts’ finger-in-the-air valuations suggest about $22 billion. On the upside, tech stocks have boomed. On the down, does Palantir actually deliver?

The prospectus makes its secret data a virtue: “We built privacy controls into our platforms from the start.”

Palantir does not, it stresses, collect data for micro-targeted advertising or to market goods or services. Instead, it offers a centralised operating system for data, enabling governments (or corporations) to “recast their siloed systems as contributors to a unified data asset”, enabling them to see the data as “entities, events, relationships, consequences, and decisions in context”. 

Centralised data has been a holy grail for savings in Canberra since at least the 1996 Howard budget. A 2017 analysis by the Australian National Audit Office found the largest buyer of IT services like Palantir is the (now-named) Services Australia. Expect the government to be tempted with the promise of robodebt 2.0.

Defence and security has been Palantir’s point-of-entry into government procurement. It was launched in 2003 in Silicon Valley with US$2 million from I-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital arm as part of the agency’s Total Information Awareness. (Yes, the CIA is into VC. And yes, it wants to know everything.)

“Palantir” is the seeing stone in The Lord of the Rings (where, umm, it’s controlled by the bad guys). The company’s founders (who will control the public company through special share-holding arrangements) are chief executive Alex Karp, president Stephen Cohen, and the Trump-supporting (and Facebook board member) Peter Thiel. 

Much of its early work was for the CIA. It was rumoured (including by Kelly in Australia) to have helped find Osama bin Laden (although most security reporters discount the claim).

It worked with the National Security Agency (NSA) and the FBI, and with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, including in controversial 2016 raids on migrant communities.

Overnight BuzzFeed reported on its widespread application for surveillance by the Los Angeles Police Department in the fight over police reform.

By the late Obama years, BuzzFeed reported, it had fallen out with significant members of the intelligence community. In 2015, Karp told staff the CIA was “recalcitrant” and the NSA had “walked away”. Palantir sued the Department of Defense to be allowed into the cosy list of defence contractors.

Then Trump happened (with more than US$1 million in donations from Thiel) and Palantir started to pick up government contracts.

Its breakthrough was a US$876 million deal in 2019 with the US Army to build a comprehensive combat intelligence hardware and software suite. Given Australian-US inter-operability, expect this to be rolled out here.

But maybe the government may decide some silos are good: The Guardian reported this week that members of the Morrison government are, surprisingly, reluctant to commit to the software upgrades needed to target money laundering and tax evasion — the sort of data work that Palantir claims to be good at.