Spy attire: US investing $22m in surveillance socks and other wearable tech

The federal government is reportedly investing at least $22m into developing clothes that “can record audio, video, and geolocation data.”

According to a 22 August press release from the office of the Director of National Intelligence’s Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), the research and development arm of the organisation, “recently launched a cutting-edge program that aims to make performance-grade, computerized clothing a reality”.

The DNI touted the SMART ePANTS program, which stands for Smart Electrically Powered and Networked Textile Systems, that “seeks to develop clothing with integrated audio, video, and geolocation sensor systems that feature the same stretchability, bendability, washability, and comfort of regular textiles,” IARPA stated.

They will be used by the intelligence community, IARPA wrote. Since the surveillance technology will be woven into the clothing, “Intelligence Community staff will be able to record information from their environment hands-free, without the need to wear uncomfortable, bulky, and rigid devices.”

For example, according to the release, the technology could “assist personnel and first responders in dangerous, high-stress environments, such as crime scenes and arms control inspections without impeding their ability to swiftly and safely operate.”

The SMART ePANTS program’s mission is to to incorporate “sensor systems” into clothes, like shirts, pants, socks, and underwear.

The Intercept reported that the federal government has dedicated at least $22m in funding to the program.

It’s unclear just how big of a gamble IARPA might be making with its investment. Its website describes itself as investing “federal funding into high-risk, high-reward projects to address challenges facing the intelligence community.”

“A lot of the IARPA and DARPA programs are like throwing spaghetti against the refrigerator,” Annie Jacobsen, author of a book called The Pentagon’s Brain about ​​the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, told the outlet. “It may or may not stick.”

Dr Dawson Cagle, an IARPA program manager leading the SMART ePANTS program, said that while he is “proud of the intelligence aspect” of the program, he’s “excited about the possibilities that the program’s research will have for the greater world.” He said that he was inspired in part to create the program by his father, who was a diabetic, and therefore had to monitor his health multiple times a day.

His father’s experience paired with the research that supports that the components of a computer “have already been developed, just as individual pieces,” he explained. If you can convert all of the components into a single, wearable device, the program’s goal will have been achieved, Dr Cagle said.

Ms Jacobsen warned that the advancement of smart wearables could lead to future concerns over biometric surveillance by the government.

“They’re now in a position of serious authority over you. In TSA, they can swab your hands for explosives,” Ms Jacobsen told The Intercept. “Now suppose SMART ePANTS detects a chemical on your skin — imagine where that can lead.”

But IARPA pushed back on this assertion, as spokesperson Nicole de Haay told the outlet: “IARPA programs are designed and executed in accordance with, and adhere to, strict civil liberties and privacy protection protocols. Further, IARPA performs civil liberties and privacy protection compliance reviews throughout our research efforts.”