In his first interview since Palantir renewed its contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), CEO Alex Karp put on a sympathetic face and defended his company's deep relationship with ICE, the intelligence community, and law enforcement agencies.
In that Bloomberg interview, titled “The Complicated Politics of Palantir’s CEO,” Karp went so far as to call himself a progressive. He laid out how “I grew up in a progressive family, I grew up at Demos, I got a Ph.D. in what could amount to as progressive German thought, living half my life in what could be argued the most progressive part of the world—Europe.”
One of the threads Karp kept invoking was the idea that it was not Palantir’s responsibility to end the contract with ICE. “We at Palantir have a view that in societies where there is a functioning democracy—meaning there are checks and balances enforced by a functioning judiciary—we will provide the software and will continue to provide the software.”
When pressed further, his analysis shifted to argue that such decisions should only be made by “the US legislature, by our representatives, and by the courts, and that we as citizens should agitate for views we believe.” Karp goes on to try and distinguish Palantir from other Silicon Valley companies, saying he doesn’t trust “these small number of people – living on an island that seems to be devoid of any of the cultural norms that the rest of us tend to share – should make these decisions.”
The problem is that Karp’s actions don’t match his rhetoric.
His point, for example, about how Silicon Valley should not be “deciding which institutions work, under what conditions …which institutions, by the way, don’t work, and under what conditions” is a legitimate one. The privatization of our public institutions means we’ve grown to rely on an increasingly narrow group of people wielding more power over our political, social, and economic decisions. And so, the problem is that Palantir’s software makes those decisions already. By empowering authorities to track leakers, protesters, and prisoners, Palantir’s software suppresses dissent, while building surveillance and carceral states that are not bound by the “checks and balances” and “rule of law” he claims to cherish as a progressive.
While Karp talks about how “our legal system is way too brutal and we need to have a discussion about that,” his tools are being used to further develop that brutality. Palantir works with and empowers the government agency that's separating families at the border and leading children to detention camps that long ago turned into a humanitarian crisis, if not a crime. Bosses are using ICE as a bludgeon to control undocumented workers.
Bloomberg reported Karp as calling Trump’s immigration policy “fair but rigorous” and the question of family separation “a really tough, complex, jarring moral issue.” A progressive would say none of this. You are not a progressive if you think a policy that includes indefinite detention or family separation is the right response. You’re not a progressive if you ramble about how citizens should agitate to decide how these tools are used, but build tools that can suppress and crush such agitation.
Karp isn’t a progressive, he’s a capitalist concerned with preserving his company’s position as the data analytics platform that “powers a lot of the Western world,” as he claimed in the Bloomberg interview. Karp’s rhetoric about progressive values is, like the rest of Palantir’s business model, a product meant to make you feel good about the horrible things being done behind the veil.