Palantir’s God’s-Eye View of Afghanistan

This is an excerpt from the book First Platoon, by Annie Jacobsen, about the US Defense Department’s quest to build the most powerful biometrics database in the world: a system that can tag, track, and locate suspected terrorists in a war zone. But, as the world continues to battle a deadly pandemic, these big-data surveillance systems are playing an increasingly suspicious role in our daily lives.In a steel container inside an American outpost in southern Afghanistan, an aerostat operator named Kevin was watching a man defecate in a farmer’s field. The man was wearing a purple hat. It was 2012, and Kevin was serving as mission director for the Persistent Ground Surveillance System team stationed here at Combat Outpost Siah Choy, located in the heart of volatile Zhari District.
The PGSS (pronounced pee-jiss) team spent 24 hours a day, seven days a week, watching an area that included 20 or so small Afghan villages. Their job was twofold. On the one hand, they watched four individual platoons of American soldiers who’d been deployed to this area, including the approximately 30 young men who made up First Platoon. Whenever one of these platoons stepped off base to conduct a patrol, the PGSS team “covered down” on the soldiers, keeping an eye out for indicators of a pending attack. The rest of the time, the team observed locals under suspicion of terrorist activity, which is why Kevin was watching the man in the purple hat. The question at hand: Was he squatting down to go to the bathroom, or to bury an IED?
An aerostat is a giant surveillance balloon. Its onboard cameras and sensors suck up vast amounts of data on what’s happening on the ground. That raw data gets processed, organized, and aggregated into an army intelligence product thanks to software developed by Palantir Technologies. Launched almost two decades ago with seed money from the CIA, the Silicon Valley startup had managed to solve a problem plaguing the Pentagon: After years of accumulating surveillance video captured by drones, airships, and aircraft flying over Iraq, the armed forces had, quite literally, millions of hours of footage sitting in archives taking up space. “We’re going to find ourselves in the not too distant future swimming in sensors and drowning in data,” Lieutenant General David Deptula warned colleagues in 2009. In one single year, the Air Force alone had collected more video footage in Iraq than a person could watch 24 hours a day, seven days a week, over the course of 24 continuous years. What to do with all that information? Palantir’s software could sift through volumes of raw, or unstructured, data, then organize and structure it in a way that made search and discovery features possible. Search for, and discovery of, say, a man in a purple hat.
“I could see everything,” Kevin says, referring to the aerostat’s technology-enabled omniscience, sometimes called the God’s-eye view. “The only way I didn’t see something was if I wasn’t looking at it.”

Kevin is an expert in what’s called pattern-of-life analysis, an esoteric discipline that involves establishing a person’s identity based on his or her cumulative habits, much of which is captured from overhead surveillance. The man going to the bathroom was deemed a person of interest, and Kevin was working to establish his pattern of life in pursuit of a new methodology called activity-based intelligence, or ABI. The first, fundamental premise of activity-based intelligence: You are what you do.

The PGSS aerostat that Kevin was in charge of was a 72-foot-long balloon called a 22M (for meters) in contractor parlance. It was not a dirigible, meaning it was not steerable and did not navigate through the air on its own power. The 22M was tethered to a mooring station inside the combat outpost at Siah Choy, attached by a 2,700-foot cable made of fiber optics, rubber, and Kevlar wrap. The flatbed surface on the mooring station reminded Kevin of a merry‑go‑round because it could rotate 360 degrees. “It could swivel back and forth to allow for wind relief, [which] mattered in the summer months, when the 120 Days of Wind kicked in,” he said, referring to Afghanistan’s strong seasonal winds. (He would later say they reminded him of the Santa Anas in Southern California, where he grew up.)