Jommy Tee uncovers the tale of a director of a Palantir, beloved by spooks and law enforcement agencies who at the same time also headed up Australian anti-corruption organisation, Transparency International Australia, and how possible conflicts of interest were managed.
Big data, big brother and the surveillance state are essential ingredients for many a spy thriller, but for Palantir Technologies, the secretive spy tech company founded by tech billionaires Peter Thiel and Alex Karp, it is the company’s lifeblood. The Australian subsidiary has the most unlikely of plot twists involving one of its directors, Michael Ahrens, the former long-time head of anti-corruption body Transparency International Australia (TIA). Secrecy versus transparency: an intriguing match-up as we shall see.
Palantir Technologies Australia
Palantir recently sprang to prominence in Australia after it recruited former federal politician Dr Mike Kelly. Kelly joined the long queue of ex-politicians who have passed through the revolving door of politics into the corporate and consulting world.
Only eight months earlier, a subsidiary of Palantir pulled a similar play, recruiting the then Canadian ambassador to the US, David MacNaughton, to head up the Canuck version of the company — Palantir Canada. There are now calls within Canada to refer the MacNaughton appointment to the federal ethics commissioner for breaking conflict-of-interest rules on post-public service employment.
Australia’s lax approach to pursuing conflict of interests and the absence of a federal integrity commission guarantees there will be no recourse on the Kelly appointment.
The company’s Australian operations have received little scrutiny, although there was some notable coverage when the company set up shop in Canberra.
Publicly available government tender information reveals that since 2013, the company has sold almost $25 million of software and services – used to mine and interrogate data – to the Australian Signals Directorate, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission, AUSTRAC, the Defence Department, the NSW Crime Commission and the Victorian Department of Justice.
Michael Ahrens and the juggling act
ASIC records reveal that the Australian arm of the company was spun off in June 2010 and has three directors: Michael Ahrens, Alex Karp (the US parent’s billionaire co-founder) and Matthew Long (a legal counsel for Palantir Technologies).
Ahrens and Karp have been directors since the company’s creation. Michael Ahrens’ story is highly unusual and worth telling.
Ahrens, once a senior commercial lawyer with global legal firm Baker and Mckenzie, was a former high-profile corruption-busting crusader with Transparency International Australia — an organisation calling for an integrity commission, the curtailment of lobbyists and greater protection for whistle-blowers.
Ahrens served with the TIA from May 2004 until November 2017, including a decade-long stint as executive director from 2006 to 2016.
However, while at TIA, Ahrens was also a director of Palantir Technologies Australia — a company whose business practices and secrecy seem at odds with the pro-accountability agenda of TIA.
Ahrens was also, and remains, a director of Palantir Technologies New Zealand — a position he has held since 2015.
Ahrens’ competing roles with Palantir and TIA
One assumes Ahrens performed quite a juggling act managing potentially major conflicts of interest while carrying out dual and, on face value, often competing roles as director of a spy tech company and director of an NGO fighting for greater accountability.
A conflict of interest declaration is one method of resolving such competing demands, bringing transparency to the table. On this front, Ahrens’ record while at TIA appears patchy at best.
During his time at TIA, Ahrens was required to file register of interest declarations on at least five occasions (2006, 2011, 2014, 2016 and 2017). TIA has confirmed Ahrens specifically listed Palantir Technologies Australia only on the 2011 and 2017 declarations.
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We approached TIA, which responded thus: “The TIA board relies on the goodwill, and accepts in good faith, the declared Register of Interests by all non-Executive Directors.”
Ahrens was TIA’s executive director when Palantir was bidding for, and winning, government contracts. Palantir obtained a major foothold in the Australian government market at roughly the same time Ahrens was lodging declarations with TIA that omitted his involvement with Palantir (2014 and 2016).
Palantir uses lobbyists to advance business interests and gain access to government and politicians. For instance, Palantir’s US parent has used lobbyists extensively in America, forking out $14.9 million since 2006 on federal government lobbying.
According to archived internet records, Palantir also used lobbyists to advance its interests in Australia, employing leading lobbyists GRACosway between 2012 and 2014. Palantir won its first contract in its own right with the Australian government in 2013.
Transparency questions for TIA
Transparency International Australia has long called for transparency over political donations and lobbying. It appears Ahrens shared that view, as he made a personal submission to that effect to then Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee’s review of the lobbying code in 2010.
Ahrens has never publicly revealed his connection with Palantir during his 13 years at TIA. This includes in its annual reports to the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission. Similarly, we could also find no reference to Ahrens’ role with Palantir in any public submissions he or TIA made to parliamentary inquiries and committees.
Austrac, TIA and Palantir – more conflicts of interest?
For instance, a TIA submission in February 2017 supported an extension of the Anti-Money Laundering and Counter Terrorism Financing (AML/CTF) regulation. The submission expressly called for greater resourcing for Australian Transaction and Analysis Centre (AUSTRAC) to enable it to carry out expanded functions.
Five months later, in July 2017, Palantir Technologies won its largest contract with the Australian government. It was with AUSTRAC and was worth $7.5 million.
In August 2017, the then-Minister for Justice Michael Keenan announced the new technological upgrade for AUSTRAC, stating that Palantir’s data-mining software would be installed at every AUSTRAC intelligence hub around Australia.
AUSTRAC’s most prominent scalps have been nabbing the Commonwealth and Westpac banks for breaching anti-money laundering and counter terrorism financing laws, so was Palantir’s software critical to revealing the breaches?
A spokesperson for AUSTRAC confirmed it uses the Palantir platform and a range of other technologies to support its financial intelligence activities and added that AUSTRAC “does not comment on the AML/CTF compliance of specific entities, or any investigations it may or may not be conducting”.
It wasn’t until late August 2017, after the AUSTRAC contract had been awarded, that Ahrens lodged another register of interest form with TIA. This time, unlike in 2014 and 2016, he listed Palantir.
During the course of this investigation we tried on several occasions to contact Michael Ahrens, including sending through a detailed list of questions on possible conflicts of interests and his handling of those matters. The only response we received was by SMS and Ahrens stated: “I don’t think I can be of much help as it’s historic.”
History records that Ahrens was involved in two worlds where potential conflicts of interest collided. While no longer with TIA, he remains a director of both the Australian and New Zealand subsidiaries of Palantir Technologies.
This article does not seek to assert any wrongdoing on behalf of Mr Ahrens, or the companies and organisations of which he was and is a director.
Jommy Tee is a long-time career public servant, having worked in the policy development field for 25+ years as well as an independent researcher interested in politics, current affairs, and Nordic noir. You can follow Jommy on Twitter @Jommy_Tee.