A Palantir code bug allowed the FBI to access the data of indicted developer Virgil Griffith
A Palantir code bug allowed the FBI to access the data of indicted developer Virgil Griffith By Hannah Perez

A group of FBI agents reportedly took advantage of an alleged flaw in Palantir’s software to access personal data on Griffith, who is currently the subject of a federal investigation.

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Palantir Technologies, the U.S. data analytics company chaired by billionaire Peter Thiel, has moved to the center of controversy after a report noted that a breach in the platform allegedly would have allowed FBI agents to access private data of Ethereum

developer Virgil Griffith, who is currently incarcerated.

According to a New York Post report, the Palantir code bug was detailed in a letter from prosecutors during the Manhattan federal court case against Griffith. The Ethereum

Foundation researcher was charged last year with conspiracy for allegedly violating international sanctions by traveling to North Korea to speak at a cryptocurrency conference during 2019.

Prosecutors argue that Griffith was engaged in explaining how to use the cryptocurrency to circumvent U.S. sanctions; though he has pleaded not guilty. Now, the event could take an unexpected turn in the legal case of the crypto-developer, who would face up to 20 years in prison if found guilty.

FBI exploits software flaw to access personal data

The Palantir

breach allowed unauthorized federal agents to access data retrieved from Griffith’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, which were obtained through a federal search warrant in March 2020. Prosecutors wrote that at least four FBI officials, not working on the case, accessed the data for more than a year, the report detailed.

One federal agent detailed in court that “an FBI analyst, in the course of a separate investigation, had identified communications between the defendant [Griffith] and the subject of that other investigation through searches of the platform

.”

The FBI employees involved assured prosecutors that they had no recollection of using the information in their investigations. For their part, Manhattan prosecutors indicated they did not intend to use the information in their case against Griffith and ordered Palantir

employees to delete the data.

Palantir, an artificial intelligence giant known for supplying controversial data-leaking software to government agencies, denied the claims and blamed the FBI for misusing the program. In a statement quoted by Post

, a spokesman for the firm wrote:

There was no technical problem in the software. Our platform has robust access and security controls.

Palantir at the center of controversy

The company, led by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, debuted on the stock market last year at a $22 billion valuation. It has several notable clients including the CIA and IBM. However, this is not the first time Palantir has run into controversy related to privacy abuse.

In the past, some experts have pointed out that the tool allows surveillance and data analysis that can be exploited to violate people’s privacy; as well as for corruption and political abuses. Among them, Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, called for an investigation into the firm.

According to Albert Fox Cahn, founder of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a privacy and civil rights group, the recent event could suggest a broader problem with the use of Palantir by U.S. federal agents.

Given that this same problem will occur every time documents are loaded with the default settings, […] suggests that it is happening much more than just in this case.”

A plus for Griffith’s case

Now, what potentially represents a highly controversial case for the multi-billion dollar tech firm could be Griffith’s salvation. As Decrypt reviewed, the recent revelation could undermine the prosecution’s case by putting the spotlight on the abuse of authorities meant to protect people’s constitutional rights.

In any federal prosecution, prosecutors have to follow the rules .If they don’t, they risk a mistrial, or, depending on the violation, even a dismissal,” attorney Jason Gottlieb, partner and head of Morrison Cohen’s white collar and Regulatory Enforcement practice group, commented to Decrypt.

The investigator from Ethereum was free on bail until July of this year, when prosecutors in charge of the case ruled that Griffith should return to jail. Prosecutors argued that the developer had made an alleged attempt to escape when he tried to access one of his frozen cryptocurrency accounts containing USD$1 million.

At the time, Gottlieb took to Twitter to criticize the court’s decision, describing the U.S. prosecutors’ approach as “incredibly heavy-handed and punitive.”

According to reports, Griffith’s lawyers are now in the process of filing a lawsuit against him.The company is investigating the legal options available to them. The creator of EthereumCoinDesk, Vitalik Buterin has defended him and claims he committed no crime. Instead, he says Griffith gave a harmless presentation in South Korea about an open source technology, based on information that was already publicly available.

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Sources: New York Post, Decrypt, CoinDesk, CoinDesk

Version by Hannah Estefania Perez / DiarioBitcoin

Image from Unsplash