The future of wearable technology, moving beyond the now-standard accessories like smartwatches and fitness tracking rings, is anticipated to be ePANTS, according to reports from the intelligence community. The federal government has allocated a significant sum, at least $22 million, towards developing “smart” clothing with the capability to monitor the wearer and their surroundings. While this concept may draw inspiration from science fiction and superpowers, its fundamental applications align with the government’s focus: surveillance and data collection.
Termed as the “largest single investment to develop Active Smart Textiles,” the SMART ePANTS program stands for Smart Electrically Powered and Networked Textile Systems and is committed to creating clothing that can record audio, video, and geolocation data. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence announced this in a press release dated August 22. The range of garments to be produced includes shirts, pants, socks, and underwear, all designed to be easily washable.
The project is being conducted by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), which is the intelligence community’s secretive counterpart to the more widely known Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). According to IARPA’s website, its mission is to “invest federal funding into high-risk, high reward projects to address challenges facing the intelligence community.”.”IARPA’s willingness to take on high-risk endeavours has led to notable accomplishments, such as physicist David Wineland being awarded a Nobel Prize for his research on quantum computing, which IARPA funded. However, it has also experienced expensive setbacks.
Smart E-Textile Technology for High-Stress Environments
Annie Jacobsen, author of a book about DARPA, “A lot of the IARPA and DARPA programs are like throwing spaghetti against the refrigerator,” Annie Jacobsen, author of a book about DARPA, “The Pentagon’s Brain,” told The Intercept. “It may or may not stick.”
According to a press release from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “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.”
Contracts for the SMART ePANTS program, issued by IARPA, have been awarded to five different entities. The Pentagon recently revealed that they had allocated $11.6 million to Nautilus Defense and $10.6 million to Leidos, both defence contractors. However, the contract values with the other three entities, namely the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, SRI International, and Areté, were not disclosed. “IARPA does not publicly disclose our funding amounts,” stated IARPA spokesperson Nicole de Haay to The Intercept.
Dawson Cagle, who previously worked as an associate at Booz Allen Hamilton, currently holds the position of IARPA program manager responsible for leading the SMART ePANTS program. Cagle has cited his experience as a United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq from 2002 to 2006 as valuable background for his current role.
Advancing Wearable Technology for National Security: SMART ePANTS and the TALOS Initiative
“As a former weapons inspector myself,” Cagle recently shared with Homeland Security Today, “I understand how much handheld electronic devices can disrupt my situational awareness during inspections. In unfamiliar environments, I would prefer to have my hands free to grasp ladders and handrails securely, preventing any accidents, rather than being occupied with a device.”
SMART EPANTS is not the first instance of the national security community venturing into advanced wearable technology. In 2013, Admiral William McRaven, who was then in command of U.S. Special Operations Command, introduced the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, abbreviated as TALOS. This initiative aimed to create a powered exoskeleton ‘supersuit,’ reminiscent of the one worn by Matt Damon’s character in the sci-fi action movie “Elysium,” which was released that same year. The proposal also sparked comparisons to the suit worn by Iron Man, portrayed by Robert Downey Jr., in a series of blockbuster films that came out around the time TALOS was conceived.
Biometric Surveillance Advances and Private Industry Interest
The TALOS project concluded in 2019 without delivering a functional prototype, but not before accumulating expenditures of $80 million. Jacobsen emphasised the potential emergence of new forms of government biometric surveillance as IARPA embarks on the development of SMART ePANTS over the next three and a half years.
“They’re now in a position of serious authority over you. In TSA, they can swab your hands for explosives,” Jacobsen noted. “Now, envision a scenario where SMART ePANTS detects a chemical on your skin — consider the implications.” With existing consumer wearables capable of monitoring your heart rate, further advancements could lead to more invasive biometric tracking.
“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,” stated de Haay, the spokesperson.
There is clear evidence of private industry interest in smart clothing beyond the national security sector. Meta, the parent company of Facebook, is actively seeking a researcher who possesses extensive knowledge in smart textiles, garment construction, the integration of electronics into flexible systems, and the ability to collaborate with a team of researchers specializing in haptics, sensing, tracking, and materials science.
Should SMART ePANTS achieve success, it is likely to become a valuable tool within IARPA’s toolkit for developing the extensive intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems of the future,” explained Jacobsen. “Their objective is to gain a deeper understanding of individuals than ever before.”