Over at the Intercept, Cora Currier and Morgan Marquis-Bore report on a German company called FinFisher that sold surveillance software to Bahrain while working under the UK-based Gamma Group.
The software enabled the country to spy on human rights lawyers and opposition leaders during the country’s violent crackdown on the Arab Spring movement between 2010 and 2012. According to a separate analysis by ProPublica, the targeted computers were located in the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, Iran, and Bahrain.
In addition to the disturbing revelation that a Western software company helped an oppressive government conduct a brutal crackdown, there’s an interesting wrinkle to the story relating to the Intercept specifically. The story leans heavily on research into FinFisher’s software conducted in 2012 by the Citizen Lab, an “interdisciplinary laboratory” at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. Furthermore, one of the authors of the Intercept story, Marquis-Bore, worked as a security researcher at the Citizen Lab in 2012.
And from where does the Citizen Lab receive a “generous” portion of its funding and software? The Peter Thiel-founded software company Palantir, which counts the US government’s counter-terror apparatus among its biggest clients.
Now, there’s nothing wrong per se with relying on research funded by a giant military contractor in order to report an important story. But you may recall late last year when the Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald responded to Mark Ames after he wrote that Greenwald had “privatized” Edward Snowden’s NSA documents by teaming up with Omidyar’s First Look Media.
In a smear against Pando that implies we are some kind of pro-CIA lapdog out to discredit Snowden and Greenwald, he wrote,
Indeed, Pando.com itself is partially funded by libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel, the co-founder of Paypal and CIA-serving Palantir Technologies. The very same author of this week’s Pando post had previously described Thiel (before he was funded by him) as ‘an enemy of democracy’
Greenwald is right — Thiel invested $ 300,000 in Pando through his Founders Fund VC firm. And Ames did call Thiel “an enemy of democracy” and, as far as I know, still thinks that way. Pando editor Paul Carr has also repeatedly criticized Thiel, Palantir and other Silicon Valley investors who support surveillance technology.
I’m no fan of Thiel’s brand of techno-libertarianism myself, but because the various venture firms who have invested in Pando are barred from having any editorial involvement whatsoever with the company, and don’t have any board seat or even an advisory role, I’m not losing any sleep over it.
In fact, Palantir’s connections with The Intercept — founded, funded and controlled by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar — and Palantir are arguably much stronger than those between Palantir and Pando and Palantir. For one thing, Omidyar’s eBay now owns PayPal, having bought it from… Peter Thiel. The technology behind eBay’s fraud detection software played an integral role in the development of the tools Palantir uses to root out cyber-terrorists.
And while Thiel invested a “mere” $ 300,000 (through Founders Fund) of the around $ 4m in investment Pando has raised in total, Omidyar has committed a whopping $ 250m to be the sole funder of the journalistic endeavors of First Look Media.
Now, I don’t think the Intercept is a stooge for the CIA or Palantir any more than we are. But for its marquee writer to suggest as much about us, and then for the outlet to turn around and rely on research funded by the same company for a scoop, just underscores the risks and ridiculousness of namedropping Palantir, that favorite bogeyman of techno-leftists, to make ad hominem attacks against an entire media organization.
[Illustration by Brad Jonas]