NSA Scandal: Is Palantir's Prism Powering PRISM?

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The Washington Post broke a story Thursday that the National Security Agency and the FBI have been collecting chats, pictures, emails and documents over several years from nine major Internet companies in a secret program known as PRISM. PRISM tapped into the central servers of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple and collected so much data that one source said the NSA “can watch your ideas form as you type.”

Setting aside the moral and constitutional questions for a moment, how could the NSA physically pull this off? Monitoring data from Google alone would be a monumental task, let alone monitoring eight more companies that possess nearly unquantifiable amounts of data. What is the government using to run PRISM?

Some have suggested the government is using tools from a Silicon Valley tech firm called Palantir, which builds software for visualizing and analyzing information. One of its platforms is called Prism.

“Prism is a software component that lets you quickly integrate external databases into Palantir,” according to the online overview of the Prism platform. “Specifically, it lets you build high-performance Data Engine based providers without writing any code.”

So is the NSA using Prism to analyze the data from Internet companies’ servers in the PRISM program? IBTimes reached out to Palantir to learn a little more about the Prism technology and what it is capable of.

We wrote: “I was hoping to speak with someone who could help me understand the technology a bit better. When was it developed, and what was Palantir’s goal with prism? How big is the team that works on prism? Would I be able to speak with someone on the team?”

Rather than answer our fairly innocuous questions about the technology, Palantir representative Matt Long immediately denied any connection between Prism and PRISM, which is not what we were asking about. Perhaps it was our timing.

“Palantir's Prism platform is completely unrelated to any U.S. government program of the same name. Prism is Palantir's name for a data integration technology used in the Palantir Metropolis platform (formerly branded as Palantir Finance). This software has been licensed to banks and hedge funds for quantitative analysis and research.”

We're guessing Palantir’s media inbox has been inundated with questions about Prism today, but they say the name is just a coincidence. Basically, they're saying, "Go home, people, there’s nothing to see here."

But hold on a second. This is the same Palantir that the Wall Street Journal wrote in 2009 had “designed what many intelligence analysts say is the most effective tool to date to investigate terrorist networks.” The article describes how Palantir made a tool that can easily scan multiple sources and has been used by the CIA, the Pentagon and the FBI. In fact, the CIA’s nonprofit venture-capital firm, In-Q-Tel, invested about $2 million in Palantir, which is now worth about $5 billion. So in other words, the CIA-backed Palantir is saying its Prism is not in any way related to the NSA's PRISM, even though Palantir's Prism software would be perfect for collecting massive amounts of data from outside servers, which is what the NSA's PRISM is being accused of.

That’s a pretty big coincidence.

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