A Palantir Employee Taught Cambridge Analytica How To Harvest Facebook Data

According to a recent New York Times report, a London-based Palantir Technologies employee named Alfredas Chmieliauskas worked closely with the data scientists building psychometric or psychological profiling technology for Cambridge Analytica that would later be used to target electoral voters.

Palantir’s Connection With Cambridge Analytica

Palantir is a Silicon Valley company that specializes in providing surveillance tools to intelligence agencies and the Pentagon. The company recently won a $876 million contract with the U.S. Army.

Its co-founder, Peter Thiel, is also a Facebook board member who was outspoken about supporting Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election and was even invited to speak at the Republican National Convention. Thiel was later considered to chair the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board (PIAB), whose role would is to oversee the intelligence community’s compliance with the Constitution and all applicable laws.

One of the first links between Thiel and Cambridge Analytica is that he donated $1 million to the Super PAC “Make America Number 1," and out of that sum $231,352 went towards Cambridge Analytica, as an FEC filing shows.

The recent NYT report also said that Chmieliauskas, who has been working on business development for Palantir for the past five years, was the one to give Cambridge Analytica the idea that the company could harvest people’s friends data from Facebook through an app, such as the quiz app that Cambridge Analytica later ended up building.

Christopher Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower and co-founder, revealed yesterday in a testimony to a UK committee that “senior employees” from Palantir were working with Cambridge Analytica. Additionally, he claimed that Palantir was also using the data Cambridge Analytica harvested, which could mean that Palantir was also violating Facebook's platform policies. Facebook recently committed to auditing all companies that are suspected of abusing its platform terms, so it remains to be seen if the company will keep its promise.

We've contacted the company and asked whether or not it intends to audit Palantir, a company founded by one of its board members, to check whether or not Palantir was also abusing its policies. We'll update the post with the company's response as soon as we receive it.

Palantir Responds To Allegations

In an initial statement, Palantir said that it “never had a relationship with Cambridge Analytica, nor have we ever worked on any Cambridge Analytica data.”

However, Palantir later revised the statement, saying the following:

We learned today that an employee, in 2013-2014, engaged in an entirely personal capacity with people associated with Cambridge Analytica. We are looking into this and will take the appropriate action.

Palantir’s statement seems to contradict Wylie’s own statements, which say that multiple Palantir employees were working with Cambridge Analytica:

There were Palantir staff who would come into the office and work on the data. And we would go and meet with Palantir staff at Palantir.

The first discussions between Palantir and Cambridge Analytica started in 2013. They were primarily pushed by an SCL Group director, Alexander Nix, who later became Cambridge Analytica’s CEO, and Palantir’s Chmieliauskas. The SCL Group, a British company specializing in military intelligence, also owns Cambridge Analytica, and it sought to use military intelligence tactics in electoral campaigns.

Palantir seems to have eventually declined to work together with Cambridge Analytica, but only after they had helped Cambridge Analytica engineer its psychographic models, according to Wylie.

Eric Schmidt And Cambridge Analytica?

In an email obtained by the NYT, Sophie Schmidt, the daughter of Eric Schmidt, who was then Google’s executive chairman, also urged the company to link with Palantir, back in June 2013. Sophie Schmidt was previously an intern for SCL Group.

In the email, two employees were discussing about Sophie Schmidt’s encouragement to link with Palantir:

Ever come across Palantir. Amusingly Eric Schmidt’s daughter was an intern with us and is trying to push us towards them?

In 2016, Eric Schmidt became a chairman at the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Advisory Board, but stepped down as Executive Chairman for Alphabet, Google’s parent company, only at the end of 2017. It's not clear whether or not there is any connection between Eric Schmidt and Palantir or Cambridge Analytica. The NYT said that both Schmidt and Cambridge Analytica refused to respond to these questions.

Palantir said that it would continue to investigate how its employees worked with Cambridge Analytica. However, it seems that Palantir would also be a good candidate to participate in the upcoming Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on data privacy, so Congress can get more direct answers from everyone involved in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Lucian Armasu
Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He covers software news and the issues surrounding privacy and security.
  • Co BIY
    Is the scandal that everyone seems to have access to Facebook's data without paying the required fees and passed it around like credit card numbers on the dark web ?
  • Giroro
    @Co Biy

    I think the scandal is that more individuals are starting to realize that companies are buying, selling, and licensing out the rights to the users' life stories without paying royalties to the actual victims. The way that companies like Facebook operate isn't really any different than identity theft or piracy of your data. But that think they can get away with it because at some point you blindly clicked past a ToS (which had changed since you signed up, regardless).
    Part of the problem is that people haven't quite realized exactly how valuable their data actually is. Facebook has become one of the biggest companies in the world primarily by selling profiles, selling ads, and tracking your activity. Google also became one of the largest and most powerful entities in all of human history by doing nearly the same thing, for that matter.
  • Peter Buelow
    @Giroro and @Co Biy, the scandal is that psychological data was used by Republican campaigns to influence what people saw and knew about the parties campaigning without acknowledging they were doing so via facebook advertisements and posts. Cambridge Analytica took data people didn't know they had given, tried to figure out how you were likely to vote or what your election preferences were, and then targeted information at you to influence how you thought about the whole process. In the US, this is illegal. If you are working on a campaign, you MUST acknowledge this fact and state it outright. In this case, no one did, and it's clear that certain parties on the Trump side, I'm not saying Trump was involved, had access to a lot of very specific profiles that helped the Republican party cause.
  • ubercake
    Can't we blame the Russians for this too?
  • takeshi7
    Be careful talking bad about Palantir, Tom's Hardware. They have a known history of blackmailing journalists to achieve their goals. Palantir is a truly scum company.