Palantir’s leaked documents and the concept of uncertainty
Did you hear about TechCrunch’s leaked documents detailing the client list of Palantir, the super secretive data mining contractor (hat tip Chris Wiggins)? Palantir, founded by uberlibertarian Peter Thiel, had clients as of 2013 including the LAPD, the CIA, DHS, NSA, the FBI, and CDC. Besides data mining for government agencies, they also work in the finance sector and the legal sector.
Here’s the scariest thing about the TechCrunch article:
Samuel Reading, a former Marine who works in Afghanistan for NEK Advanced Securities Group, a U.S. military contractor, was quoted in the document as saying It’s the combination of every analytical tool you could ever dream of. You will know every single bad guy in your area.”
That quote, if true, belies a lack of understanding of what data mining can actually do in terms of accuracy. No data mining tool can be both comprehensive and accurate – find all the bad guys with no accidental good guys getting caught in the net. It’s just not possible, unless you have DNA samples with markers for “bad guyness,” and even then DNA tests sometimes get mixed up.
It behooves an expensive and fancy consulting company to act like their tools are prophetic, however, even if that means false positives or false negatives happen all the time, which of course they do, with any algorithm.
It’s bad enough when stupid start-up companies claim big data solves everything, when what they’re doing is trying to solve a problem nobody cares about. It’s another thing altogether when it’s our military and military contractors and police and secret services, and when we don’t have any view into what it actually does. Scary stuff.