US spy agency eyes 'smart' clothing that spies on wearer, surroundings
The US is investing approximately $22 million in a project known as SMART ePANTS reportedly aimed at developing clothing capable of recording audio, video, and geolocation data.
A report by The Intercept citing the intelligence community suggests that ePANTS may be the next big thing in the future of wearable technology, surpassing standard wearables like smartwatches and fitness tracking rings.
The federal government has invested at least $22 million in developing "smart" clothing designed to keep the wearer and its own surroundings under surveillance. While the concept may draw inspiration from science fiction and superpowers, the primary applications align with the government's focus: surveillance and data collection.
Known as SMART ePANTS (Smart Electrically Powered and Networked Textile Systems) program, it represents the most substantial single investment in developing Active Smart Textiles. The program's objective is to create clothing capable of recording audio, video, and geolocation data, as announced by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in an August 22 press release. The range of garments set for production includes shirts, pants, socks, and underwear, all designed to be washable.
The SMART ePANTS project is run by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), which is the intelligence community's equivalent of the more widely recognized Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) within the military.
IARPA's mission, as described on its website, involves allocating federal funds to support high-risk, high-reward projects aimed at addressing challenges confronting the intelligence community. The organization's willingness to take on substantial risk has resulted in notable successes, such as physicist David Wineland receiving a Nobel Prize for his quantum computing research, which was funded by IARPA. However, it has also experienced costly setbacks.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in a press release, “This eTextile technology could also 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.”
IARPA has distributed contracts for the SMART ePANTS initiative to five organizations. According to recent disclosures by the Pentagon, IARPA has granted contracts worth $11.6 million to Nautilus Defense and $10.6 million to Leidos, both of which are defense contractors.
The Pentagon did not reveal the monetary value of the contracts awarded to the other three organizations: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, SRI International, and Areté.
'They want to know more about you than you'
SMART EPANTS is not the first instance of the national security community venturing into advanced wearables. Back in 2013, Adm. William McRaven, who was then the commander of US Special Operations Command, introduced the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, known as TALOS.
The TALOS project concluded in 2019 without producing a functional prototype, but it incurred expenses totaling $80 million. There is existing proof that private companies unrelated to the national security sector have expressed interest in smart clothing, as per the report.
The intelligence community has a history of making controversial investments in far-fetched technology projects. For example, the CIA's venture capital arm, In-Q-Tel, made an investment in Colossal Biosciences, a startup focused on resurrecting wooly mammoths, as reported by The Intercept in 2022.
Annie Jacobsen, author of a book about DARPA, “The Pentagon’s Brain,” said as quoted by The Intercept that if the SMART ePANTS project achieves its objectives, it is expected to be a valuable asset in IARPA's efforts to “create the vast intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems of the future."
“They want to know more about you than you,” she said.