Wednesday, August 3, 2016

(The Big Disrupt) IoT: The CIA's IoT portfolio is growing and why that's a problem

In-Q-Tel (also IQT) is a not-for-profit company founded in 1999 under the name Peleus by former Lockheed Martin president Norman Augustine. The company is the official capital venture fund of what Dwight D. Eisenhower referred to as the military-industrial complex, the comingling of spy agencies, military, and the weapons industry..  

The CIA, which provided initial funding for IQT, explains the the company was created to to “seek outside help and expertise”. In a way, this is a reasoning of defeat. After crediting itself with building reconnaissance aircraft like the U-2 and the SR-71, as well as laying the foundation for what we today call the Internet, the CIA has been forced to admit that after the cold war it lost out to the free market when competing for talent and develop new technologies. 

“In order to extend its reach and access a broad network of IT innovators, the Agency had to step outside of itself and appear not just as a buyer of IT but also as a seller. The CIA had to offer Silicon Valley something of value, a business model that the Valley understood; a model that provides those who joined hands with In-Q-Tel the opportunity to commercialize their innovations.” 

To some degree, however, In-Q-Tel operates independently of the CIA. It is registered as a corporation in Virginia, and while it is charter-bound it to the CIA, its members are excluded from much of the oversight a government-funded agency would otherwise be exposed to (not that we want to claim the CIA has a lot of oversight). 

The IQT venture fund is set up as a not-for-profit, but that just means it cannot wire profits back to the CIA. It can, and should, make profits from its ventures, to reduce reliance on funding from the CIA. Its employees, unlike most employees of government organizations, are allowed to personally profit from their involvement, for example by investing in the same companies, or getting additional payroll from the companies In-Q-Tel invests in. 

But which projects do In-Q-Tel invest in? And why? Here’s some of IQT’s current investments, and why they are so interesting. 

Location: Austin, TX 
Invested since: May 2015 

What they do: 

Atlas makes fitness trackers that learn the kind of exercises you do, then helps you set and keep goals around them. Atlas states that in addition to 70 pre-programmed exercises, you can also define your own, and there are no limits to what kind of body movements the tracker can understand, even able to track activities like swimming. 

Atlas Wearables started out as an Indiegogo campaign in 2014 and they raised over US$ 600,000 on the crowd funding platform--six times their original goal. 

Why the CIA is interested: 

Does the US government have an interest in how and when its citizens exercise? It’s hard to imagine the data created and collected by fitness wearables is of much use to the intelligence apparatus, especially if it only includes your daily workout routines. The app allows your coach to monitor your exercises in real time, but it’s no good for tracking people who may be of interest to the CIA. If you ever need to run away from the government and join the A-Team, surely you will take off the device, right? 

The real benefit lies in using Atlas’ technology to monitor soldiers during battles and to better understand what physical condition they are in. More information about the soldiers on the ground means more information for the commanders in control, which in return hopefully creates a strategic advantage on the battlefield. 

Location: Sunnyvale, CA 
Invested since: May 2014 

What they do: 

DigiLens makes displays that can fit inside of lenses, such as your glasses, helmet, or a window. For example, the company has prototyped a motorcycle helmet that projects information like speed and navigation directly onto the visor, allowing the driver to focus on the road more. 

The technology is most famous for Google’s Glass attempt, which was heavily criticised by privacy advocates when it launched in 2013. Two years later, Google discontinued the Glass, though they are likely to restart the project at a later date. 

Why is the CIA interested: 

Embedded displays in glasses, helmets, or even contact lenses have long been a staple of  spy thrillers. Therefore it’s not surprising to see investments in this field, as the agency aims to equip its agents with always the latest information technology. Indeed, even the name In-Q-Tel is said to be inspired by Q, from the James Bond series. But again, soldiers, pilots, and mechanics are likely the first ones to benefit from new augmented reality features (some already do), and projected information directly into their sight. 

Location: San Jose, CA 
Invested since: March 2009 

Location: Alameda: CA 
Invested since: June 2012 

Gainspan builds Wi-Fi modules and chips that need very little power. They are intended for use in devices around your home, in your car, and even some toys. Imprint Energy makes energy dense rechargeable batteries based on Zinc that are as thin as paper. 

As devices are getting increasingly networked mobile power is becoming a real bottleneck for development and the CIA is invested in multiple companies trying to solve this problem. On one hand, devices need to become more energy efficient, and on the other hand, batteries need to be able to hold more energy--all while being reduced in size and weight. 

There are an infinite number of ways this can help the CIA. When combined, Gainspan and Imprint Energy could create small sensors in your home or car that monitor air quality and temperature, or record everything you say, so as to inform your overlords about your nasty thought crimes. 

Location: Austin, TX 
Invested since: November 2010 

InView builds cheap and tiny infrared cameras. Like regular light, infrared is electromagnetic radiation, but with wavelengths slightly longer than that our eyes can see. Most of our body heat is visible through infrared, and these waves also have an easier time penetrating fog and smoke. Unlike thermal cameras, infrared cameras can also see through windows. 

InView lists a number of military and intelligence uses on its website, including border surveillance, spotting fake wigs, finding enemy sensors, and seeing through fog, particularly useful at airports. 
Investments for the Battlefield 

The vast majority of applications that In-Q-Tel invests in are predominantly useful in a battlefield. But it takes little imagination to see how these tools of war will eventually trickle down into our communities and living rooms. Body sensors, embedded screens, and tiny cameras will later find a use in federal police agencies, then in entertainment, before finally arriving at everyday law enforcement. Which is not something that anyone should be enamoured by.  

Arthur Baxter is an Network Operations Analyst atExpressVPN, a leading privacy advocate whose core mission is to make it easy for everyone to use the Internet with security, privacy, and freedom. They offer100+ VPN server locations in 78 countries. They regularly write about internet security and privacy at theExpressVPN blog. 

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