PRISM Speculation and The Lord of the Rings: The ‘Palantir’ Connection

Still unfolding news about a tech company creates an unlikely intersection of national security and the fantasy world of J.R.R. Tolkien

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Geeks and wonks may have something new in common. After the Washington Post broke a story earlier this week about a government program to mine tech data—via a program code-named PRISM—a reader of the D.C.-centric blog Talking Points Memo offered an opinion that the program might be the work of a data-analysis company called Palantir. According to the reader, the company—dubbed, in a 2011 BusinessWeek story, “the war on terror’s secret weapon“—has developed powerful database software also called “prism.”

At this point, any connection is just speculation—and, in fact, in a follow-up to Valleywag’s excellent summary of what Palantir does, the company denied that prism is PRISM. But one thing is for sure: the company’s name should be immediately familiar to fans of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings epic fantasy series.

(MOREPRISM of Interest: How TV Drama Anticipated the Data-Mining News)

 If it’s been a while since you journeyed to Middle-earth, here’s a quick refresher on the role and significance of “palantír” (the accent = not a tech company) in Tolkien’s world.

Like a prism, a palantír has visual-enhancing properties. The word means “far-sighted” in the Elvish language; the palantíri are sometimes also called “seeing stones” and are described as being dark spheres of varying sizes. Twenty-eight of them were originally constructed, but only seven came to Middle-earth, the fictional-universe setting of the LOTR books and movies. Each of these seven stones has the power to communicate with the others, allowing those who control them to see places far away. In the Rings trilogy, two palantíri were used—for dark and nefarious purposes—by the antagonists Sauron and Saruman, whereupon…well, no further spoilers.

They are not to be messed with.

(MOREPRISM by the Numbers: A Guide to the Government’s Secret Internet Data-Mining Program)