Senate candidates JD Vance and Blake Masters, and billionaire Peter Thiel.Mother Jones illustration; Drew Angerer/Getty; Christopher Brown/ZUMA; John Lamparski/Getty
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It’s become de rigueur for Republicans—especially Republican candidates—to blast away at Big Tech, assailing it for an assortment of ills, such as privacy violations and a presumed (and often unproven) bias against conservatives. Two GOP Senate candidates, in particular, JD Vance in Ohio and Blake Masters in Arizona, have pounded technology companies. Yet both have had connections to tech firms that have spurred privacy concerns, and their Senate bids have each been funded by Big Tech billionaire Peter Thiel, who has founded and financed ventures that prompt similar worries.
In an interview with conservative talk show host Bill Cunningham last year, Vance complained that Big Tech has become “more powerful than our own government” and controls “what you’re allowed to say and what you’re allowed to think in your own country.” He railed against tech companies that don’t respect consumers’ privacy: “They steal their data from them, and then they sell it back to them in the form of targeted ads. That’s really what Silicon Valley is all about.” Vance called for “breaking up these companies” and complained “there are very few senators willing to go after Silicon Valley.” On a Breitbart podcast, he accused Big Tech of “stealing our data and selling it to our enemies, selling it to our enemies, foreign, sometimes the Chinese… There is nothing that says that Google should be allowed to harvest your data as a consumer. Sell it back to you. Sell it to our adversaries.” He characterized the “entire economic engine of Big Tech, of Facebook, of Google, of everyone” as “harvesting your data, it’s effectively spying on you.” On his campaign website, Vance says, “The solution is simple: we need to break up the big tech companies, to reduce their power in our economy and our politics. We also need to ban the theft of our personal information. If they want our data, it’s time they paid for it.”
Masters has pushed a similar line, assailing Big Tech companies for perpetrating “acute harms” on the American public regarding data privacy, as he noted on the Andrew Klavan Show earlier this year. “Data privacy in the United States,” he added, “doesn’t exist.” Masters blasted “giant multinational corporations” for taking “our data” and using “it against us every which way.” Appearing on Steve Bannon’s podcast a year ago, he insisted, “We need comprehensive federal data privacy legislation. You own your data; giant multinational corporations do not.”
In October 2021, Vance and Masters co-wrote a column for the New York Post in which they claimed Big Tech had manipulated the 2020 election (against Trump), and they blasted Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg for donating $400 million to local election offices—an act they depicted as “election meddling” that demanded investigation. They charged that tech titans and other oligarchs “used their power and money to do everything they could to steal an election.”
Despite their anti-Big Tech rhetoric, Vance and Masters each have had deep and profitable ties to the Silicon Valley they decry. Masters, who co-wrote a book with Thiel, worked for him at Thiel Capital, an investment firm, eventually becoming its chief operating officer, and he was president of the Thiel Foundation.
Vance was a principal at Mithril Capital Management, Thiel’s venture capital firm. In 2019, he co-founded Narya Capital, a VC firm. To launch the company, he relied on funding from Thiel and two other Big Tech titans, Eric Schmidt, a past CEO of Google, and Marc Andreesen, who co-founded Netscape and the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreesen Horowitz. Google has long been a target of privacy advocates, as well as conservatives who claim it is politically biased against the right, and Netscape was accused of privacy violations in the early 2000s and agreed to a settlement with the New York State attorney general. In short, Vance’s own business was started with financial assistance from the Big Tech crowd he now assails.
As candidates, Vance and Masters have each benefited greatly from Thiel’s largesse. The libertarian-minded, pro-Trump billionaire has contributed $30 million to super-PACS that support the pair, each of whom have been endorsed by Donald Trump. The Washington Post recently reported that Thiel plans to dump another $5 million into Masters’ race, in which Thiel’s former associate is seeking to unseat Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly, the former astronaut.
Vance, Masters, and Thiel all have links to the sort of Big Tech companies and activities that Vance and Masters routinely denounce. This is especially true for Thiel. He was one of the first outside investors in Facebook—a prominent target of Vance, Masters, and other right-wingers—and has served on its board since 2005. After Facebook booted Trump off the site following the January 6 assault on the US Capitol, Thiel raised objections to Facebook’s content moderation policies. In February, it was announced he would leave the Facebook board this year.
In 2003, Thiel co-founded Palantir Technologies, a secretive big-data analysis and surveillance company that works for government agencies, the US intelligence community, and private corporations and that has long troubled privacy advocates. (The CIA, through its own venture capital fund, was an early investor.) “Palantir’s data-mining software is used to analyze vast amounts of personal data held by the federal government to make determinations that affect people’s lives with little to no oversight,” Jeramie Scott, senior counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), told Vox. Palantir was also connected to the scandal involving Cambridge Analytica, the data company that improperly obtained Facebook data as part of its work for Trump and other Republican candidates in 2016. A Cambridge Analytica whistleblower claimed multiple senior Palantir employees were part of this effort. Palantir maintained only one of its employees had been involved with Cambridge Analytica “in an entirely personal capacity.”
Thiel’s name arose recently in another data privacy controversy. In May, Vice News reported that a location data firm called SafeGraph was selling information regarding visits to clinics that provide abortion services, including Planned Parenthood facilities. This data showed where the people visiting the locations had come from, the duration of their visit to the clinic, and where they went afterward. Vice described SafeGraph’s methodology: “SafeGraph ultimately obtains location data from ordinary apps installed on people’s phones. Often app developers install code, called software development kits (SDKs), into their apps that sends users’ location data to companies in exchange for the developer receiving payment. Sometimes app users don’t know that their phone—be that via a prayer app, or a weather app—is collecting and sending location data to third parties.” The Daily Mail noted this raised “fears that women could be targeted by pro-life groups” and that Thiel and Turki bin Faisal Al Saud, the former head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency, were among the financial backers of the privacy-threatening SafeGraph.
Thiel has also been an investor in Clearview AI, a company that scraped billions of images from the internet to develop facial-recognition software used by law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and the Secret Service. A 2020 feature on the firm in the New York Times called Clearview AI “the secretive company that might end privacy as we know it.” And as the newspaper reported last year, “The company’s product has been deemed illegal in Canada, and it is being investigated by Britain and Australia for its use of citizens’ personal information. Lawsuits that have been filed against the company in the United States include one in Illinois accusing it of violating that state’s Biometric Information Privacy Act.” This spring, Clearview AI was fined $10 million by the UK’s data protection watchdog for scraping photos of British citizens and ordered to delete all of the data it had amassed on UK citizens. It was also fined $21 million in Italy for violating data protection regulations and has been assailed by regulators in Australia, France, and Germany.
As Thiel has served on the Facebook board, developed Palantir, and invested in these other privacy-defying companies, Masters has been his loyal acolyte and at his side as a top official of Thiel Capital from 2014 until this year. On its LinkedIn page, Thiel Capital states that it “provides strategic and operational support for Peter’s many investment initiatives and entrepreneurial endeavors.”
Vance, in addition to working at Thiel’s VC shop, invested with him in a start-up with its own data and privacy issues. Last year, Narya, Vance’s company, and Thiel were participants in a $40 million Series B investment in Hallow, a Catholic prayer and meditation app that triggered privacy concerns.
An investigation by Buzzfeed earlier this year found that Hallow and other Christian worship apps “have privacy policies that allow them to share user data with business partners for the purposes of targeted advertising and that give them ‘sole discretion’ about when to disclose user information to governments, law enforcement officials, or other ‘private parties.’” A Hallow representative told Buzzfeed it had not exploited its user information for marketing purposes or shared such data with private parties or the government. But Buzzfeed pointed out that its policy would allow Hallow and similar apps to “categorize their users’ personal information as a business asset—perhaps one of their most valuable.” Zach Edwards, a privacy researcher, told Buzzfeed, “until these prayer apps have been around for a few years, their users should anticipate that at any moment, online advertising could be easily integrated into these websites, and the data they currently are collecting could be used to optimize new advertising systems.”
The Vance and Masters campaigns did not respond to a request for comment.
Thiel’s enterprises, particularly Palantir and Clearview AI, have generated alarm among privacy advocates focused on Big Tech. And Vance and Masters both personally profited off Big Tech and their associations with Thiel before entering politics, and then each won Republican primary contests partly due to Thiel’s big-money contributions. Their denouncements of Big Tech sometimes echo legitimate complaints regarding privacy and data collection, but they also raise a question of personal hypocrisy. Where were their assaults on Big Tech when they were in the belly of the beast? Can Thiel-backed candidates be trusted on this front? As political start-ups underwritten by Thiel, the anti-Big Tech crusades of Vance and Masters warrant much due diligence before voters invest in them.