23rd Mar 2018

Trump-linked US firm at heart of French intelligence

  • French spies are now able to select and compare intercepted data and connect the dots and reveal potential terrorist activities. (Photo: CommScope)

France’s counter-terrorism services, which are reputed to be among the best in the world, have come to rely on American technology co-owned by one of US president Donald Trump's closest advisers.

With the fight against terrorism now mainly waged on the internet, the US has a trick up its sleeve: Palantir.

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The name refers to a "seeing stone" in the fantasy book The Lord of the Rings by British writer J.R.R. Tolkien.

The US firm that goes by that name than can analyse millions of data entries at the same time.

Last December, after several months of difficult negotiations, the General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI), France's domestic intelligence service, signed a €10-million contract with Palantir to use the company's so-called Gotham program.

Palantir's Paris office hired extra technicians and IT engineers. It also trained French counter-terrorism officers on its equipment, which has been operational since spring.

Using Palantir's Gotham software, the DGSI can intercept data and cross check information on phone calls, emails, text messages, and banking wires.

It can select and compare intercepted data and connect the dots to reveal potential terrorist activities.

"Concretely, we are now able to use algorithms, a kind of black box, with which we can massively gather information from different sources, analyse them and therefore make an operational exploitation," a French intelligence official told EUobserver.

Deciphering information

This is crucial for the DGSI, which monitors jihadists' online activities, but which had so far found it difficult to exploit the information it had gathered.

Between October 2015, the month before the Paris terror attacks, and October 2016, French intelligence services spied on 20,282 people, including 9,624 (47 percent) of them "in accordance with terrorism prevention [rules]".

But wiretapping, video surveillance, and shadowing people remained insufficient to counter the threat.

In April, for instance, two men were arrested in Marseille, under the suspicion that they were preparing an "imminent and large-scale attack" ahead of the first round of the French presidential election. Weapons and chemical products were found in their apartment.

The operation was made possible by British intelligence, which intercepted a message of allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) terror group that was sent by the Marseilles suspects to other jihadists.

The event highlighted France's need for better data interception.

Britain has the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), the world's second largest interception centre after the NSA in the US. GCHQ and the NSA also work closely together in Echelon, a worldwide interception network.

The French authorities believed it was necessary to work with Palantir even though the issue was sensitive.

Western intelligence services are allies, but they are also suspicious of each other and Palantir's profile has raised eyebrows in Paris.

Palantir's background

Palantir was created in 2004, partly with a $2-million (€1.8mn) contribution from In-Q-Tel, a US intelligence venture capital firm. It is now worth $20 billion.

Palantir provides services to US security agencies - the CIA, the NSA, and the FBI - as well as to the US army and special forces.

It is said to have played a crucial role in localising and eliminating the infamous 9/11 terrorist Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011.

While Palantir is close to US intelligence, its bosses are close to Trump.

On 15 December 2016, a month after his election, the US president met the bosses of America’s IT giants - from Apple and Google to Amazon and Yahoo.

Sitting directly to the left of Donald Trump was Peter Thiel, the co-founder of Palantir. The other Palantir co-founder, Alex Karp, was also in the room.

According to the New York Times, the meeting was "orchestrated by Mr. Thiel" and "the president-elect caressed Mr. Thiel’s hand so affectionately that body language experts went into a frenzy."

Also a co-founder of the online payment firm PayPal, Thiel gave $1.25 million to Trump’s presidential campaign last year and is one of the US president's closest advisers for IT issues - the New York Times called him "Trump’s tech pal".

Thiel was a speaker at the Republican National Convention in August last year, when Trump was formally chosen as the party's presidential candidate.

Although the French intelligence source insisted that Palantir was not in charge of collecting information, France accepts the fact that the US, through the company, now has access to the most sensitive information on French counter-terrorism.

"We are in favour of an intelligent, non-naive, international cooperation," said Guillaume Poupard, the head of the French National Agency for Security of Information System (Anssi), last November.

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