Matt Nippert is a business investigations reporter.

Billionaire Peter Thiel's secret Kiwi spy links revealed

New Zealand spy agencies and our elite Special Air Service soldiers have long-standing commercial links with a controversial big-data company founded by surprise Kiwi Peter Thiel, the Herald can reveal.

An investigation into Thiel's links to New Zealand has found his firm Palantir Technologies has counted the New Zealand Defence Force, the Security Intelligence Service and the Government Communications and Security Bureau as clients with contracts dating back to at least 2012.

The revelation caused Kennedy Graham, Green Party spokesman for intelligence and security matters, to call for a delay to the passage of the New Zealand Intelligence and Security Bill, which today passed its second and penultimate reading.

Graham said the New Zealand-Palantir connection was "potentially huge" and raised more questions than it answered.

"The Parliament should not be too hasty until these things properly come to light," he said.

The connections between Palantir - controversial in the United States over its long links with National Security Agency surveillance operations and Thiel's backing of President Donald Trump - and the New Zealand government has long been shrouded in secrecy.

Questions sent to spokespeople for Thiel and Palantir both went unanswered this week.

Requests under the Official Information Act to the three agencies seeking to disclose the existence and amount spent on Palantir data-analysis software initially drew a response of either "neither confirm nor deny" or "neither denies nor confirms" and claims that even answering the question threatened national security.

This mystery is undercut by official publications by the agencies themselves over the past few years disclosing its use. A recently-advertised job description for the SIS said a key performance measurement would be that "appropriate user champions are identified within teams and provided with support to develop the Palantir skills of their team."

Jobs advertised in Wellington by Palantir itself warn successful applicants "must be willing and able to obtain a Government security clearance in New Zealand". The company has been a regular fixture at university careers fairs since 2013.

And a brief item in the military magazine Army News in 2012 stated a trial of the company's software was being piloted, but this wasn't the first time it had been deployed in New Zealand.

"Palantir intelligence software is in use with a number of our domestic and foreign partners," Army News said.

The reference to domestic partners is understood to be the GCSB and SIS, who both assist the army's elite SAS regiment in deployments overseas.

The New Zealand Defence Force, after being made aware of the public disclosures, back-tracked on its refusal to comment and confirmed in later correspondence Palantir had been in use since 2012 and 100 staff had been trained in its use.

Despite the backtrack by their counterparts in the military, a spokesperson for both spy agencies reiterated: "It is our long-standing policy not to discuss operations, suppliers or capabilities."

Former MP and Green Party co-leader Russel Norman, who sat on the Intelligence and Security Committee - Parliament's sole oversight of intelligence agencies - said although he was unable to discuss matters discussed during closed committee sessions, he didn't find the experience particularly illuminating of Palantir.

Fairfax Media's Andrea Vance reported in 2014 the GCSB and SIS declined to answer any questions about Palantir posed by the committee.

As Norman told the Herald this week: "I learned far more from the Snowden leaks than I ever did from that committee."

The Intercept, a publication reporting on the Snowden leaks, last month reported: "Palantir's chief appeal is that it's not designed to do any single thing in particular, but is flexible and powerful enough to accommodate the requirements of any organisation that needs to process large amounts of both personal and abstract data."

The company became controversial in the United States over its close working relationship with the NSA in building programs designed to draw together disparate datasets - many obtained from widespread surveillance.

"Palantir's technology is dual-purpose," says Intercept security director Morgan Marquis-Boire, who noted it was put to some controversial uses - including recent news it was assisting the identification of undocumented migrants for deportation action by United States authorities.

Morgan said the adoption of Palantir by New Zealand agencies was not surprising given the long-standing intelligence-sharing alliance with the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. "I can't say I'm surprised, given Five Eyes," he said.

The three New Zealand agencies refused to disclose how much New Zealand taxpayer dollars were being spent on Palantir, although a leaked sales brochure published by The Intercept claimed while the product "looks expensive", it "isn't as expensive as expected."

The influence of Thiel - who was revealed by the Herald to have been awarded New Zealand citizenship under exceptional circumstance provision by the then-Minister of Internal Affairs in 2011 - on Palantir is obvious.

Thiel's fetish for Lord of the Rings nomenclature extends to his company (Palantiri are magical crystal balls and the company's headquarters in California is informally called "the Shire"), Palantir's Wellington-based "data guru" namechecks Thiel's book Zero to One in his CV, and the billionaire co-founder still is chairman of the board.

While the exact size of Thiel's stake in the company is not clear, it is by many accounts the largest single asset of the man valued by Forbes to be worth $4 billion.

After being founded in 2004, the financial press suggest floating the company on the stock market - potentially valuing the company in excess of $25 billion but opening it to more public scrutiny - is the next obvious step.


Government rejects link to citizenship

• Newly-disclosed links between Peter Thiel's Palantir Technologies and New Zealand intelligence agencies played no part in him being awarded of citizenship, the Government says.

• Official Information Act inquiries of the three agencies understood to use Palantir software - the New Zealand Defence Force, the Security Intelligence Service and the Government Communications Security Bureau - saw all deny any of their senior management team had met with Thiel over the past eight years.

• All three agencies also said they made no submission, formal or informal, over the Thiel application, although the SIS noted it undertook routine screening of all applicants in accordance with the Citizenship Act.

• The lightly redacted 145-page citizenship file released by Internal Affairs last month contained only one reference to Palantir - a passing mention in a media profile of Thiel submitted by his lawyers.

• Officials recommended then-Minister Nathan Guy approve the application, despite Thiel's neither living in New Zealand nor intending to do so, arguing his entrepreneurial skill and philanthropic deeds meant his case was exceptional.

• Guy, who said after news Thiel's citizenship broke "I don't recall this specific application", this week refused an interview about the case.

• A spokesman for Guy said the Minister had since reviewed the application file and now said he was unaware of links between Palantir and New Zealand intelligence agencies at the time he approved the application.

- NZ Herald

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