Article from this week’s New Yorker on Peter Thiel and Palantir Technologies
“WHY PROTESTERS GATHERED OUTSIDE PETER THIEL’S MANSION THIS WEEKEND
By Anna Wiener March 14, 2017
Peter Thiel’s Palantir Technologies makes software that can aid in the roundup of undocumented immigrants.
On Saturday afternoon, a group of about fifty tech workers, attorneys, anti-surveillance activists, and other Bay Area denizens stood outside a three-story, nine-bedroom, twenty-five-million-dollar mansion. It is the home of the investor, entrepreneur, and Trump adviser Peter Thiel, who co-founded Palantir Technologies, in 2004. Thiel’s house is located on what is known as Billionaires’ Row, in San Francisco’s tony Pacific Heights, close to the Lyon Street Steps. Old-money heirs such as the Getty and Traina families, and software-industry giants, including Larry Ellison, the co-founder of Oracle, have homes nearby. Thiel’s address is not publicly listed, but Sonja Trauss, a Bay Area housing activist who, together with her colleague Laura Foote Clark, had organized the protest, was fairly certain that she had it right. “He lived there as of September 26th,” she said. Last fall, Thiel invited Trauss for breakfast to discuss local housing policy. Trauss recalled that she ate oatmeal, that Thiel had “some little quiches with a salad,” and that she had been struck by the house’s interior décor; the walls were gray with white molding, and pictures—“cityscapes, countryscapes, inoffensive stuff”—were hung in odd locations. “Places where you don’t put a picture, like too close to a ceiling or poking onto the window,” she said. “I just imagined the interior decorator being, like, ‘Peter, I have a vision.’ ”
Trauss and Clark organized the rally in response to a report, published in The Intercept earlier this month, that a software program known as Investigative Case Management (I.C.M.), developed by Palantir Technologies for the Department of Homeland Security, will now also be used to facilitate and expedite the work of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.). The program is part of a forty-two-million-dollar contract drafted in 2014, and collects data such as telephone records, addresses, social-media content, immigration history, biometric traits, and criminal records. For anyone concerned about the potential for mass deportations under President Trump, I.C.E.’s use of this software is an alarming development. (A privacy-impact assessment filed in 2016 states that the database can be used to aid in criminal and civil cases against immigrants, including “exclusion, deportation, and removal proceedings.”) The protest was less for Thiel’s benefit, Trauss said, than to raise awareness among his employees. “These people are our friends,” she said, of the tech workers employed by Palantir and other Thiel-affiliated companies. “We’re not coming at it after spending years being, like, ‘Tech workers, go home, you’re scum, you’re ruining our city,’ like some of the other immigration activists. Our immediate network is the very people who are waking up every day and spending all day coding this system.”
The tech industry has long been criticized for failing to acknowledge its own complicity in social problems while adopting change-the-world rhetoric. Since the Presidential election, some of these concerns have become impossible to ignore. Earlier this year, nearly three thousand tech workers signed the Never Again pledge, promising not to work on any databases that the Trump Administration might use to target vulnerable groups. (The name is a nod to I.B.M.’s alleged role, during the Second World War, in systematizing Nazi genocide by providing punch-card technology.) Engineers at Palantir are unusually well-positioned to resist within their workplace, Trauss argues. “Sometimes resistance looks like incompetence,” she said. She had prepared a small zine for distribution at the protest, on the back of which was printed Étienne de La Boétie’s essay “Discourse on Voluntary Servitude,” from the sixteenth century. A single sentence was printed in bold: “It is not necessary to deprive him of anything, but simply to give him nothing.”
Several protesters arrived by cars hailed through Lyft, another company in which Thiel is a major investor; others, who had climbed the hill or the steps, sparkled with sweat. The crowd carried signs that read, “Palantir collaborates with Trump’s I.C.E. raids”; “Don’t build software for Mordor” (a riff on Palantir’s namesake, the “seeing stone” in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series); and “Peter Thiel is a vampire” (a reference to Thiel’s interest in young-to-old blood transfusions for life extension). Some of the protesters were immigrants; one pointed out that Thiel, who was born in Germany, to German parents, is an immigrant himself. A woman wearing psychedelic tights carried a sign around her neck that read, “This statistician says ‘be wary of big data.’ ”
“Do you think he has fun in this house?” one software engineer asked, peering up at the mansion, which another of the protesters described as “neo-Bavarian.” A small sign out front read, “Protected by Pacific Heights Security”—the badge of a local, élite security firm staffed by armed off-duty and retired cops. The consensus was that Thiel was not home, though several people noted that the curtains on some of the second-floor windows were parted, and the presence of three policemen across the street suggested that he had been given a heads-up. Someone speculated that Thiel, a vocal proponent of seasteading––the creation of floating “cities” outside of any government’s jurisdiction—could be on a cargo ship in the Atlantic. A white Jaguar without a license plate crept past; its driver paused to talk to one of the policemen, then sped off.
David Campos, a former member of the San Francisco board of supervisors, who emigrated from Guatemala, in 1985, stood on the brick stoop and raised a megaphone. “The reason we’re here is to call upon the people who are complicit in what Trump is trying to do,” he said. Clark echoed the sentiment. “If your company is complicit, it is time to fight that,” she said. Trauss, when it was her turn, addressed Thiel, wherever he was. “What happened to being a libertarian?” she asked. “What happened to freedom of movement for labor?”
Edward Hasbrouck, a consultant with the Identity Project, a civil-liberties group, took the stand, wearing a furry pink tiger-striped pussyhat. “The banality of evil today is the person sitting in a cubicle in San Francisco, or in Silicon Valley, building the tools of digital fascism that are being used by those in Washington,” he said. “We’ve been hearing back that there are a fair number of people at Palantir who are working really hard at convincing themselves that they’re not playing a role—they’re not the ones out on the street putting the cuffs on people. They’re not really responsible, even though they’re the ones who are building the technology that makes that possible.”
After a full-throated chant—“I am human, I am not data”—the protesters took a group photograph on Thiel’s stoop, then lingered in the sun and helped themselves to flavored sparkling water and cookies from the back of a white pickup truck that Trauss had parked out front. A boombox blasted Rye Rye’s “Drop,” and a child wearing a “Not My President” T-shirt bounced to the music. A gaggle of purebred retrievers and standard poodles, leashed to a dog-walker, trotted across the street. It felt less like a protest than a block party on someone else’s block.
Anna Wiener lives in San Francisco and works in technology.