By Ken Smith
A quarter-century ago, Arizona Governor Evan Mecham was impeached and removed from office, mostly for insensitive statements and because he offended the power elite. Mecham was the focal point of the national media for his gaffes.
He was roundly ridiculed for saying that he kept a radio going in his office to cancel out the laser beams from listening to his conversations.
A cartoon by Steve Benson appeared in the Arizona Republic depicting the governor leaving his house outfitted for laser tag. When asked about this by reporters, Attorney General Bob Corbin replied in amusement, “We don’t have any ray gun pointed at him.”
I was reminded of this recently when I read an article in Forbes magazine, “How A ‘Deviant’ Philosopher Built Palantir, A CIA-Funded Data-Mining Juggernaut” (September 2, 2013 issue). It is a profile of Alex Karp, the CEO of Palantir, a super secret think tank in Palo Alto, California, with a stellar list of spooky clients, including the “NSA, the FBI and the CIA — an early investor through its In-Q-Tel venture fund–along with an alphabet soup of other U.S. counterterrorism and military agencies.”
Toward the end of the long Forbes article, this paragraph about Alex Karp caught my eye:
His office, decorated with cardboard effigies of himself built by Palantir staff and a Lego fortress on a coffee table, overlooks Palo Alto’s Alma Street through two-way mirrors. Each pane is fitted with a wired device resembling a white hockey puck. The gadgets, known as acoustic transducers, imperceptibly vibrate the glass with white noise to prevent eavesdropping techniques, such as bouncing lasers off windows to listen to conversations inside.
Well, look at that. Evan Mecham was just 26 years too early in worrying about lasers spying on him.
Two more paragraphs from the Forbes article:
Karp’s 24/7 security detail is meant to protect him from extremists who have sent him death threats and conspiracy theorists who have called Palantir to rant about the Illuminati. Schizophrenics have stalked Karp outside his office for days at a stretch. “It’s easy to be the focal point of fantasies,” he says, “if your company is involved in realities like ours.”
Palantir lives the realities of its customers: the NSA, the FBI and the CIA–an early investor through its In-Q-Tel venture fund–along with an alphabet soup of other U.S. counterterrorism and military agencies. In the last five years Palantir has become the go-to company for mining massive data sets for intelligence and law enforcement applications, with a slick software interface and coders who parachute into clients’ headquarters to customize its programs. Palantir turns messy swamps of information into intuitively visualized maps, histograms and link charts. Give its so-called “forward-deployed engineers” a few days to crawl, tag and integrate every scrap of a customer’s data, and Palantir can elucidate problems as disparate as terrorism, disaster response and human trafficking.