Palantir, the secretive data analytics startup founded by billionaire investor Peter Thiel, would challenge a government order seeking the company’s encryption keys, according to a leaked document.
TechCrunch has obtained a leaked copy of Palantir’s S-1, filed with U.S. regulators to take the company public. We’ve covered some ground already, including looking at Palantir’s financials, its customers, and some of the company’s self-identified risk factors.
But despite close relationships with law enforcement and government customers — including the U.S. government — Palantir indicated where it would draw the line if it was served a legal demand for its data.
From the leaked S-1 filing:
From time to time, government entities may seek our assistance with obtaining information about our customers or could request that we modify our platforms in a manner to permit access or monitoring. In light of our confidentiality and privacy commitments, we may legally challenge law enforcement or other government requests to provide information, to obtain encryption keys, or to modify or weaken encryption.
The S-1 touches on a particularly thorny issue in the U.S., given repeated efforts by the Trump administration to undermine and weaken encryption at the request of law enforcement, who say that encryption used by U.S. tech and internet giants makes it harder to investigate crimes.
But despite the close ties between Palantir co-founder Peter Thiel and the administration, Palantir’s position on encryption aligns closer with that of other Silicon Valley tech companies, which say strong encryption protects their users and customers from hackers and data theft.
In June, the government doubled down on its anti-encryption position with the introduction of two bills which, if passed, would force tech giants to build encryption backdoors into their systems.
Tech companies — including Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter — strongly opposed the bills, arguing that backdoors “would leave all Americans, businesses, and government agencies dangerously exposed to cyber threats from criminals and foreign adversaries.” (Verizon Media, which owns TechCrunch, is also a member of the coalition.)
Orders demanding a company’s encryption keys are rare but not unheard of.
In 2013 the government ordered Lavabit, an encrypted email provider, to turn over the site’s encryption keys. It was later confirmed, though long suspected, that the government wanted access to the Lavabit account belonging to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
More recently, the FBI launched legal action in 2016 to compel Apple to build a custom backdoor that would have allowed federal agents access to an encrypted iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino shooters, Syed Rizwan Farook, who with his wife Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people and injured 22 others. The FBI dropped the case after hiring hackers to break into the shooter’s iPhone, without Apple’s help.
Palantir did not say in the S-1 if it had received a legal order for data to date. But the S-1 filing said that the company risks “adverse political, business, and reputational consequences” regardless of whether or not the company challenged a legal order in court.
A Palantir spokesperson did not return a request for comment.