David MacNaughton wasted no time in monetizing his Ottawa connections when he stepped down as Canada’s ambassador to Washington last August and simultaneously signed on with the controversial Silicon Valley data analytics firm Palantir Technologies.
Previous ambassadors have leveraged their ties in government to win lucrative gigs in business. Mr. MacNaughton’s immediate predecessors took positions with blue chip Canadian corporations after leaving Washington. Frank McKenna, a former Liberal premier of New Brunswick, went on to a high-paying career at TD Bank Group. Gary Doer, who served as the New Democratic premier of Manitoba, snagged directorships at Power Corporation of Canada and several of its subsidiaries. He also sits on the board of Air Canada.
Mr. MacNaughton joining Palantir as president of its Canadian unit is different. First, he made no effort to hide the fact that he had been negotiating for his new job while he was still in his old one. Second, the company did not hire him as a trophy to sit on its board or lend prestige to its business. It could not care less about those things. The firm is a disruptor that pushes boundaries in sometimes disturbing ways.
Its business model relies on winning government contracts for its data analytics and surveillance software. Those contracts enable it to access vast amounts of personal information, raising privacy concerns that governments have been slow to address. Silicon Valley is always several steps ahead of the regulators, most of whom are toothless.
What Palantir does with the data it collects is not for the faint of heart. “Our product is used, on occasion, to kill people,” chief executive officer Alex Karp told Axios last month. “If you’re looking for a terrorist in the world now, you’re probably using our government product and you’re probably doing the operation that takes out the person in another product we build.”
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has used Palantir’s software to track suspected illegal immigrants. The company has reportedly obtained more than US$1-billion worth of work from the U.S. Department of Defense. It obtained a $1-million contract with Canada’s Defence department last year to licence its Gotham software.
That was just before Mr. MacNaughton signed on, joining the dozens of former government officials and politicians Palantir has recruited around the world to drum up business in their respective countries. The company didn’t choose Mr. MacNaughton, a former government relations consultant who chaired the Liberal Party of Canada’s 2015 election campaign in Ontario, for his code-writing skills. It hired him because he knows everyone who’s anyone in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government and can usually get them on the phone within minutes.
Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion is sufficiently concerned about Mr. MacNaughton’s activities on behalf of Palantir that he has reportedly opened an investigation into whether the former ambassador violated the Conflict of Interest Act. Although Mr. MacNaughton is forbidden by the Act from making “representations” to government officials on behalf of his new firm, he has admitted to speaking regularly to officials in the Prime Minister’s Office. He often offers Innovation Minister Naveep Bains “solutions and ideas on how to help Canadians,” according to testimony Mr. Bains made before a House of Commons committee.
When he joined the company, Mr. MacNaughton said he had “been particularly impressed by how Palantir’s technology is transforming the healthcare industry. It’s speeding drug research, improving health outcomes and fighting disease outbreaks all while protecting privacy. I want to bring that technology to more institutions in Canada.”
That noble-sounding objective dovetails perfectly with the business opportunity raised by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has already generated more data than probably any other public-health crisis in history. Firms such as Palantir have been winning public contracts around the world to manage and make sense of the data on testing, contact tracing and death counts. It would only follow that Palantir would seek to obtain similar contracts here, gaining valuable data on those infected. If so, Canadians should know about it.
Co-founded by Silicon Valley serial entrepreneur Peter Thiel, an openly gay conservative who backed Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Palantir is reportedly preparing to go public soon. That could mean a big pay day for Mr. MacNaughton, depending on whether he was granted stock options when he signed on. The company did not respond to a request for information regarding an initial public offering.
There is some irony in Mr. MacNaughton going to work for Mr. Thiel, who has been an outspoken critic of identity politics, calling it a “monster” that “gets crazier and crazier.” After all, Mr. MacNaughton’s previous boss, Mr. Trudeau, is a master of identity politics. But business is business. And no business may be juicier these days than Palantir’s.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.