What Is Palantir, and Why Is It Worth $20 Billion?

Buzzfeed News reports that Palantir Technologies is raising $500 million on a valuation of $20 billion, making it the third-largest startup in America. “Its worth is surpassed only by Uber,” according to the report, “which is said to have a $50 billion valuation, and by Airbnb, which was recently reported by the Wall Street Journal to be raising money at a $24 billion valuation.” While the business models for both Uber and Airbnb are fairly well-known (i.e., apps for spending time in other people’s property, awkwardly avoiding small talk, and wondering if it’s all worth the few bucks you just saved), Palantir is a bit of a mystery to many.

Palantir is in the national security business. Unlike the common perception of defense contractors as Stark-Industries-type enterprises building robot suits and arc reactors, Palantir concerns itself with data analysis. In short, consider the hundreds of discrete moments that might go into a terrorist plot to blow up a national monument. Plane tickets are bought, parts for a bomb are purchased, targets are cased, agents are recruited, test-runs are carried out (including things like the bus tickets to get to the target, tickets to gain admission to the target, and so on). After the carnage, it’s easy to say, “Well obviously all of the dots were there. Why couldn’t we connect them?”

That’s what Palantir software is designed to do. It collects and synthesizes the data, helping government employees stop plots before they’re carried through to execution. Artificial intelligence is not running the show. Reportedly, the hands of human beings are firmly at the helm, which also helps protect civil liberties. By many reports, Palantir’s software is the best on the market today and works extremely well. The company counts among its successes derailing a massive, global web of cyber intrusion by the Chinese government; predicting the locations of improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan before the bombs could go off; helping J.P. Morgan fight fraud; and bringing together the salad bar of databases of the American intelligence community, enabling analysts to work from cohesive intelligence.

For obvious reasons, there are concerns about the company and its activities. Even if Palantir’s motives are as pure as the wind-driven snow, the potential for harm is self-evident. Jay Stanley, an analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union, described abuse of the software as enabling a “true totalitarian nightmare, monitoring the activities of innocent Americans on a mass scale.” In at least one instance, government insiders proposed using Palantir software against WikiLeaks. (The plan was never carried out, due at least in part to a leak of the scheme to the press.)

In his final address as president of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower warned that “only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.” Critics of Palantir basically claim that they are the entity about which Ike was warning us. After all, our new $20 billion behemoth counts as its customers the Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and major metropolitan police departments. If spies, armies, and the local fuzz need a mysterious product designed to drill into data about pretty much everything and that can be used against pretty much anyone, someone can claim to be “knowledgeable,” but it isn’t necessarily the citizenry.

The company’s name comes from Lord of the Rings. Remember those orbs that Sauron used to see people in Middle Earth? The orbs that controlled anyone who touched them? The orbs that could read people’s minds? Each of those orbs was a palantír. If it was good enough for the Dark Lord of Mordor, it’s good enough for the U.S. government.

Live Smarter
This $40 Wireless Keyboard is Solar-Powered and Might Just Revolutionize Your Workspace

Meet the $40 solar-powered keyboard that's about to make your life a whole lot easier.

The Logitech K750 Wireless Solar Keyboard can be charged by sunlight as well as artificial lights, like your desk lamp, and stays juiced up for at least three months in total darkness. With this innovative gadget, Logitech is eliminating the annoyances that come with other wireless keyboards, like constantly having to change the batteries or plug it in to recharge. Best of all, the Windows-compatible model is on sale at Amazon for $39.99, down from $59.99. Never fear, Mac users—there's a model for you, too (although it's slightly pricier at $54.88).

(Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy.)

Having a reliable wireless keyboard can save you time and undue stress, whether you work in a cubicle or a home office. Plus, at one third of an inch thick, the keyboard is so sleek that Logitech compares it to typing on a laptop (and Amazon reviewers agree). You can monitor the gadget's power level by downloading the Logitech Solar App for your computer. Setting it up is easy: Just plug the receiver into your computer and you're done. It also comes with a three-year warranty for peace of mind.

solar keyboard

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Focus Features
Pop Culture
How Mister Rogers Saved the VCR
Focus Features
Focus Features

In 1984, a landmark case laid down a controversial law regarding technology and copyright infringement. Here's a look back at the "Betamax Case," including the role Fred Rogers played in the Supreme Court's decision.

For many years in the pre-DVD/Blu-ray, pre-streaming era, the BetamaxSony’s prototype videotape player-recorder—was a punch line. A piece of technology that was quickly superseded by VHS and the VCR, it limped along in the shadows for two decades. And yet, it was the Betamax that gave its name to a court case that has played a pivotal role in both technological progress and copyright law over the last 30-plus years.

Like many other cool electronic products, the Betamax came from Japan. In late 1975, it was introduced to the U.S. by Sony, who touted its ability to “time-shift” television programming. In an era when most viewers still had to get up off the couch to change channels manually, this innovation was as futuristic as it sounded. Record a TV show right off the air? Are you kidding?

If the public was wowed by the idea, the major entertainment corporations were not. Universal Studios and Walt Disney Productions filed a lawsuit in 1976 to halt the sale of the Betamax, claiming that film and TV producers would lose millions of dollars from unauthorized duplication and distribution of their copyrighted content.

When the case finally went to trial in 1979, the U. S. District Court ruled in favor of Sony, stating that taping programs for entertainment or time-shifting was fair use, and did not infringe on copyright. Further, there was no proof that the practice did any economic harm to the television or motion picture industry.

But Universal, unhappy with the verdict, appealed in 1981, and the ruling was reversed. Keep in mind that up until the arrival of the Betamax, movie studios had received a cut of the box office or fee whenever one of their films was shown. Now suddenly here was a rapidly expanding scenario that undermined that structure. And in this scenario was the seed of much that would follow over the next 34 years, right through today’s ongoing battles over illegal streaming sites.


With large sums of money and copyright ownership at stake, the Betamax case arrived at the Supreme Court in 1983. By this point, nearly 50 percent of all homes in America had a VCR (VHS replaced Betamax, mainly because its tapes had longer recording capability) and sales of videocassettes were competing with theatrical box office. Universal Studios vs. Sony Corporation of America, nicknamed the “Betamax Case,” was argued for a year. It was a trial of extremes. On one hand, you had Jack Valenti, the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, yelling about the “savagery and ravages” of the VCR, and claiming that "the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone." On the other, you had the testimony from Fred Rogers. Defending the VCR, he said:

"I have always felt that with the advent of all of this new technology that allows people to tape the 'Neighborhood' off-the-air ... they then become much more active in the programming of their family’s television life. Very frankly, I am opposed to people being programmed by others. My whole approach in broadcasting has always been ‘You are an important person just the way you are. You can make healthy decisions’ ... I just feel that anything that allows a person to be more active in the control of his or her life, in a healthy way, is important."

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Sony and cited Rogers's comments: "He testified that he had absolutely no objection to home taping for noncommercial use and expressed the opinion that it is a real service to families to be able to record children's programs and to show them at appropriate times."

The decision set two major precedents. The first upheld the original decision—that recording a broadcast program for later viewing is fair use. The second was, and still is, controversial—that the manufacturer of a device or technology that can be used for copyright infringement but also has “substantial non-infringing uses” can’t be held liable for copyright violations by those who use it. It’s kind of technology’s version of “don’t shoot the messenger.”

The same points of law would reemerge two decades later in cases against file-sharing sites Napster and Grokster (in the latter, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously against them for trading copyrighted material). Of course, despite the popularity of legal movie and TV streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu, file sharing continues. Whether it can be, or should be, stopped is a subject for another day. But it’s worth remembering that all the manufacturers of technology capable of copyright infringing (from computers to iPhones to DVRs) continue to sell their wares without fear of lawsuits because of the once-laughed-at Betamax.

To discover more about the fascinating life of Fred Rogers, check out Won't You Be My Neighbor?, the new documentary from Focus Features, which arrives in theaters on June 8, 2018.


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