Palantir’s mysterious work and its founding origins with Trump ally and anti-press crusader Peter Thiel have inspired a number of controversies in recent years, none as divisive as its ongoing business with ICE. But with a direct listing around the corner, the famously secretive company is in for a lot more scrutiny.
In Palantir’s forthcoming S-1 filing, obtained by TechCrunch, the soon-to-be-public company addresses concerns about managing its brand reputation as some of its contracts attract unwanted attention. Palantir makes the fairly combative claim in the risks portion of the unpublished financial filing that its business could be harmed by “coverage that presents, or relies on, inaccurate, misleading, incomplete, or otherwise damaging information” about the company:
“As our business has grown and as interest in Palantir and the technology industry overall has increased, we have attracted, and may continue to attract, significant attention from news and social media outlets, including unfavorable coverage and coverage that is not directly attributable to statements authorized by our leadership, that incorrectly reports on statements made by our leadership or employees and the nature of our work, perpetuates unfounded speculation about company involvements, or that is otherwise misleading.”
The filing also states that the company has its hands tied in responding to these hypothetical misleading reports due to the “sensitive nature” of its contracts and confidentiality requirements.
Incomplete reporting is inevitable for a company that’s largely shrouded the nature of its business from the public eye. Historically, any information that trickles out about Palantir’s work with U.S. defense and law enforcement agencies comes from FOIAs, like one that recently produced a user manual for Palantir Gotham, the company’s signature software platform developed for defense and intelligence agencies.
Palantir acknowledges that activists and the press have taken a special interest in the company due to its work with “organizations whose products or activities are or are perceived to be harmful.” The S-1 of course doesn’t name Palantir’s work with ICE specifically, but that contract has attracted a swarm of scrutiny, both from outsider observers and employees within the company. The filing notes that unspecified relationships have resulted in public criticism and “unfavorable coverage” of the company.
Last year, The Washington Post reported that Palantir employees were reckoning with the company’s work for the aggressive U.S. immigration agency, “[debating] the ICE contracts in town hall meetings, office hallways, Slack channels and email threads.”
While other tech companies have yielded to critics of defense and law enforcement work, Palantir instead has grown its most controversial contracts over time. The company’s S-1 discusses that decision making process:
“Activists have also engaged in public protests at our properties. Activist criticism of our relationships with customers could potentially engender dissatisfaction among potential and existing customers, investors, and employees with how we address political and social concerns in our business activities.
Conversely, being perceived as yielding to activism targeted at certain customers could damage our relationships with certain customers, including governments and government agencies with which we do business, whose views may or may not be aligned with those of political and social activists.”
In 2018, as the tech industry grappled with the ethical implications of lucrative federal defense work, more than 200 employees wrote a letter to Palantir CEO Alex Karp expressing their concerns over its ICE contracts. Palantir has two current contracts with ICE, one for the agency’s Investigative Case Management (ICM) internal database and another for software known as FALCON. Combined, those contracts are worth as much as $92 million.
Palantir makes a sizable chunk of its revenue by selling U.S. agencies software that weaves together data streams to monitor individuals, but the company draws a thick line at helping China do the same.
“We do not work with the Chinese communist party and have chosen not to host our platforms in China, which may limit our growth prospects,” the S-1 states, calling work with China “inconsistent” with the company’s aims and culture.
“We do not consider any sales opportunities with the Chinese communist party, do not host our platforms in China, and impose limitations on access to our platforms in China in order to protect our intellectual property, to promote respect for and defend privacy and civil liberties protections, and to promote data security.”
Palantir’s anti-China stance isn’t necessarily surprising given Thiel’s penchant for ominous warnings about Chinese tech dominance — a position that also happens to bolster his relationship with a White House that’s since kicked off an unusual crusade against Chinese social media giant TikTok. Still, it’s strange, noteworthy and a sign of the times to see a refusal to do business with China articulated explicitly in a tech company’s S-1.