5-7-2012 | Palantir
"The origins of Palantir go back to PayPal, the online payments pioneer founded in 1998. A hit with consumers and businesses, PayPal also attracted criminals who used the service for money laundering and fraud. By 2000, PayPal looked like “it was just going to go out of business” because of the cost of keeping up with the bad guys, says Peter Thiel, a PayPal co-founder.
The antifraud tools of the time could not keep up with the crooks. PayPal’s engineers would train computers to look out for suspicious transfers — a number of large transactions between U.S. and Russian accounts, for example — and then have human analysts review each flagged deal. But each time PayPal cottoned to a new ploy, the criminals changed tactics. The computers would miss these shifts, and the humans were overwhelmed by the explosion of transactions the company handled.
PayPal’s computer scientists set to work building a software system that would treat each transaction as part of a pattern rather than just an entry in a database. They devised ways to get information about a person’s computer, the other people he did business with, and how all this fit into the history of transactions. These techniques let human analysts see networks of suspicious accounts and pick up on patterns missed by the computers. PayPal could start freezing dodgy payments before they were processed. “It saved hundreds of millions of dollars,” says Bob McGrew, a former PayPal engineer and the current director of engineering at Palantir.
After EBay (EBAY) acquired PayPal in 2002, Thiel left to start a hedge fund, Clarium Capital Management. He and Joe Lonsdale, a Clarium executive who’d been a PayPal intern, decided to turn PayPal’s fraud detection into a business by building a data analysis system that married artificial intelligence software with human skills. Washington, they guessed, would be a natural place to begin selling such technology. “We were watching the government spend tens of billions on information systems that were just horrible,” Lonsdale says. “Silicon Valley had gotten to be a lot more advanced than government contractors, because the government doesn’t have access to the best engineers.”
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