The experience of Neo4j Inc. illustrates the fine line these companies must walk. The company’s namesake graph database technology enables users to discover relationships between data elements that aren’t obvious on the surface.

That’s made it a favorite of investigative journalists, who use graph technology to peer into the byzantine webs of hidden connections that characterize such areas as campaign financing and money laundering.

Sampling of former U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker’s offshore connections via Paradise Papers Sampling of former U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker’s offshore connections (Source: Paradise Papers)

Neo4j donated its technology to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists for use in researching the Paradise Papers, a series of 2017 reports on the ways in which companies and wealthy individuals use offshore havens to avoid paying U.S. taxes. It has also participated in a project to unwind the factors that influenced the 2016 U.S. election and sponsored a journalism internship. And it assigns some members of its developer relations teams to assist journalists in applying its technology to their craft.

“We’re all very motivated when we see that the product is used for good,” said Philip Rathle, Neo4j’s vice president of products.

However, the company’s customers also include controversial agrichemical giant Monsanto Co., several unnamed government agencies and makers of drones for use in surveillance. “We don’t publicize them that much,” Rathle acknowledged, but the company reasons that the good that can come from its government relationships exceeds any potential for misuse.

Like many of the companies that were interviewed, Neo4j leaves it up to employees to determine their own comfort levels and doesn’t penalize people for opting out of projects or working with customers whose activities offend them. “No one should ever be forced to engage with an organization that makes them uncomfortable,” Rathle said.

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