UPDATE — This story has been updated to reflect that Google announced it had terminated its search engine project for the Chinese in July.
WASHINGTON — Palantir will launch an ad campaign during the Army-Navy football game that will kickoff at 3:00 p.m. eastern time on Dec. 14 that appears to take a shot at Google, which decided in 2018 not to work with the Pentagon on its major artificial intelligence development program after caving under the pressure of an employee protest.
Palantir is now working on that effort — Project Maven — which will develop machine-learning capabilities.
The big data analytics and software development company will run two versions of a 15-second ad four times during the game that opens with a man slaving over his computer in a garage at night.
A narrator says, “Remember when Silicon Valley was a place where committed visionaries went to pursue their dreams and invent a better future for all of us?”
In one of the ads obtained in advance by Defense News, the garage transforms into a modern office space where programmers have maps pulled up on screens and then pans to soldiers crouched down at a ruggedized computer to review critical intel in the field.
“At Palantir, we remember. We build cutting edge technology to keep troops safe. Palantir — Protecting the protector since 2004,” the narrator says.
In the very least, Palantir is stressing that its work is rooted in a devotion to enhancing national security and safety of American soldiers serving their country, but it comes in the midst of a heated debated over Google’s actions in relation to the Pentagon.
“One of the main reasons we started Palantir was to deliver the best technology from Silicon Valley to those putting their lives on the line for our nation’s security. In recognition of those service members deployed around the world, we thought it was especially important to ensure they knew they had our full support,” Doug Philippone, global defense program lead at Palantir, told Defense News in an email when asked to comment about the ads.
The company isn’t alone among high tech Silicon Valley companies in asserting its patriotism and also at taking indirect jabs at Google.
The ads come on the heels of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ strongly worded statements at the Reagan National Defense Forum in California earlier this month, which directly pointed at Google for its failure to work with the Pentagon to enhance capability that will protect the homeland and its troops abroad.
Bezos warned that America would be in trouble if leadership in the tech industry decided not to work with the Pentagon. He never explicitly called out Google by name, but the company is the only one to pull out of a big project because the customer was the Defense Department. Microsoft President Brad Smith made similar statements the year before at Reagan.
The decision by Google leadership to cave under the pressure shocked the national security community, particularly as Google was developing a special firewall-bolstered search engine for China.
Google’s decision to bow out of Project Maven also angered the top Pentagon leader, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, who spoke openly about Google betraying the country. In March, he said he planned to meet with Google to “debate” about its role and responsibilities as a commercial enterprise versus how much the firm owes to America as its home nation.
In July, Google vice president of public policy Karan Bhatia told Senate Judiciary Committee members that the project was protested by its own staff and was terminated. Employees working on the effort have been reassigned to other work.
Palantir’s ads could also represent something else, which is a tightening of ties between the Pentagon and Silicon Valley. It’s been a long-time concern that Silicon Valley and the Pentagon’s cultural delta was too wide to ever cross.
But Amazon, IBM, Oracle and Microsoft have all fought for Pentagon contracts in recent years and seen success.
Just a few years ago, Palantir was locked in an ugly legal battle with the U.S. Army over its procurement plans for the Distributed Common Ground System-Army (DCGS-A), an intelligence analysis platform.
Palantir, for years, maintained that they could provide a less expensive and more capable solution to the service and urged the Army to abandon its investment to internally develop the system.
When Palantir sued the Army over its acquisition approach with DCGS-A, it revealed a major culture clash behind the scenes between service leadership and Palantir executives. The Army was forced to reevaluate its approach after Palantir won in court. And, after a new competition, Palantir is providing tactical level DCGS-A systems to the service.
Palantir is embracing its efforts within the Defense Department, and, for example, set up a splashy booth at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference in Washington, D.C., in 2018 for the first time. It repeated its attendance in 2019.
Part of the turnaround, at least within the Army, is its major overhaul of its acquisition and modernization processes through the establishment of Army Futures Command. One of its primary tenets is to think outside the box and work with non-traditional technology companies rather than turning solely to the same-old, big defense firms in order to get better capability in the field more rapidly.
And the Pentagon as a whole is prioritizing artificial intelligence, machine-learning and rapid data processing as the key to being effective in protecting the homeland and carrying out missions on the battlefield now and in the future. These needs align well with what tech firms have to offer, making the relationships more critical to national security than ever before.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.