New Spy Technology Pursued by DARPA

A new generation of spy technology designed to strengthen the U.S. military’s ability to detect and eliminate suspected insurgents in Iraq and elsewhere based on computer analyses of their movements and activities is being developed by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency)

spy technologyThe Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has begun granting contracts to software firms to create algorithms that can be applied to the real-time video feeds from drone aircraft so the data can be sorted and stored on a wide range of human activities, from digging a ditch to climbing into a car to kissing someone.

The contracts represent the latest step in the Bush administration’s seven-year drive to develop high-tech spying capabilities that can be applied to a variety of situations and locales to detect terrorist or insurgent activities.

The new DARPA project would develop algorithms that would identify specific human activities – both by individuals and by groups – and evaluate if these actions suggested behavior that would justify a military response.

The list of activities that would draw attention to a single person include “digging, loitering, picking up, throwing, exploding/burning, carrying, shooting, launching, walking, limping, running, kicking, smoking, gesturing,” according to DARPA’s contract description.

For person-to-person activities, the project would identify and catalogue cases of “following, meeting, gathering, moving in a group, dispersing, shaking hands, kissing, exchanging objects, kicking, carrying together.”

Categories relating to vehicles include getting into or out of a car, opening or closing the trunk, driving, accelerating, turning, stopping, passing and maintaining distances.

According to DARPA’s description, the research project addresses challenges faced by intelligence analysts in processing and retrieving the vast amounts of visual data created by live video feeds from Predator drones and other aerial surveillance over Iraq and Afghanistan. By identifying and indexing specific actions, the analysts would be helped in evaluating potential threats and could retrieve video regarding similar behavior.

“The U.S. military and intelligence communities have an ever increasing need to monitor live video feeds and search large volumes of archived video data for activities of interest due to the rapid growth in development and fielding of motion video systems,” said the DARPA document, written in March but withheld from the public until September.

Kitware, a software company with offices in New York and North Carolina, won an initial $6.7 million contract for what is technically called Video and Image Retrieval and Analysis Tool, or VIRAT.

In a statement about the contract award, Kitware projected that through its proposed system, “the most high-value intelligence content will be clearly and intuitively presented to the video analyst, resulting in substantial reductions in analyst workload per mission as well as increasing the quality and accuracy of intelligence yield.”

Anthony Hoogs, Kitware’s project leader, said, ”This project will really make a difference to the war fighter.”

To carry out the project, Kitware said it was teaming up with two leading military technology companies, Honeywell and General Dynamics, as well as a number of academic researchers. [See Kitware Awarded $6.7M DARPA Contract.]

Repression Works

Though this DARPA project is not expected to be completed until early next decade, other technological breakthroughs reportedly have helped U.S. forces identify and kill insurgents in Iraq.

In his latest book, The War Within, Bob Woodward writes that highly classified U.S. intelligence tactics allowed for rapid targeting and killing of Iraqi insurgent leaders, representing a more important factor in undermining the insurgency than President George W. Bush’s much touted troop “surge.” However, Woodward withheld details of these secret techniques so as not to undermine their effectiveness.

Still, there have been previous glimpses of classified U.S. programs that combine high-tech means of identifying insurgents – such as sophisticated biometrics and night-vision-equipped drones – with old-fashioned brutality on the ground, including on-the-spot executions of suspected insurgents. [For details, see’s “Bush’s Global Dirty War” and “Iraq’s Laboratory of Repression.”]

However, the marriage of advanced technology and military repression has raised concerns among some human rights advocates that these techniques could open the door to an Orwellian future in which authoritarian regimes repress popular resistance.

DARPA, with its mandate to push the envelope on the application of technology for military and intelligence purposes, also has been caught up before in controversies about balancing security against liberty.

In 2002, DARPA came under criticism when it unveiled plans for Total Information Awareness, a project that sought to detect terrorist activities by mining electronic data about virtually everyone on earth, anyone who participated in the modern economy.

The plan was to map out “transactional data” collected from every kind of activity – “financial, education, travel, medical, veterinary, country entry, place/event entry, transportation, housing, critical resources, government, communications,” according to the DARPA Web site.

The program would then cross-reference this data with the “biometric signatures of humans,” data collected on individuals’ faces, fingerprints, gaits and irises. To run the sensitive project, the Bush administration selected retired Admiral John Poindexter, who was convicted of five felony counts in the Iran-Contra Affair (though a conservative-dominated appeals court later reversed the jury verdicts).

Public and congressional outrage over this massive data-mining operation supposedly killed the TIA program in 2003, but the National Journal revealed in February 2006 that the project was ended in name only, kept alive within the secret budget of the National Security Agency.

One TIA component, called the Information Awareness Prototype System, was renamed “Basketball” at NSA, but still provided the basic architecture tying together information extraction, analysis and dissemination tools developed under TIA.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration began deploying similar advanced technology to Iraq with the goal of throttling the insurgency that was challenging the U.S. military occupation.

In effect, Iraq was transformed into a test tube for modern techniques of repression, including use of night-vision optics on drone aircraft, heat resonance imaging, and firepower that is both deadly and precise.

The new techniques marked a modernization of tactics used in other counterinsurgencies, such as in Vietnam in the 1960s and in Central America in the 1980s.

In Vietnam, U.S. forces planted sensors along infiltration routes for targeting bombing runs against North Vietnamese troops. In Guatemala, security forces were equipped with early laptop computers for use in identifying suspected subversives who would be dragged off buses and summarily executed.

Last year, a conservative counterinsurgency expert sent me a video, spliced together by the U.S. military in Iraq, showing how some of the modern techniques worked in Iraq. The video showed night-vision aerial surveillance of suspected “terrorists” as they moved in the dark with what was described as a truck-mounted anti-aircraft gun, the muzzle still warm from firing.

The tiny figures of these “terrorists” then walked into a forested area where they were mowed down by miniguns from an AC-130. Their truck also was blown to bits.


Besides using Predator drones to monitor the movement of Iraqis from the sky, massive amounts of biometric data have been collected on the country’s people for use in identifying suspected insurgents.

Explaining the value of this computerized database, Pentagon weapons designer Anh Duong told the Washington Post that it gave valuable information to soldiers on the ground.

“A war fighter needs to know one of three things: Do I let him go? Keep him? Or shoot him on the spot?” Duong said.

Though Duong is best known for designing high-explosives used to destroy hardened targets, she also supervised this Joint Expeditionary Forensics Facilities project, known as a “lab in a box” for analyzing biometric data, such as iris scans and fingerprints, that have been collected on more than one million Iraqis.

The labs – collapsible, 20-by-20-foot units each with a generator and a satellite link to a biometric data base in West Virginia – let U.S. forces cross-check data in the field against information collected previously that can be used to identify insurgents.

Duong said the next step would be to shrink the lab to the size of a “backpack” so soldiers who encounter a suspect “could find out within minutes” if he’s on a terrorist watch list and should be killed. [Washington Post, Dec. 1, 2007]

By identifying and indexing a wide range of human activities captured on surveillance videos, the new DARPA project could augment some of these other security projects, already in place or in development.

Regarding the video analysis, however, DARPA specifically prohibited inclusion of biometric algorithms for identifying people by their gaits or other individual features. However, those elements, which are being developed separately, presumably could be added to the overall technological package at a later date.

6 comments to New Spy Technology Pursued by DARPA

  • Pierre F. Lherisson

    Succeeding generations always reinterpret the actions of preceding generations and the distinct epoch of humanity history from different lenses and perspectives. It is most likely in five hundred years from now,our 20th generation will have difficulty distinguishing the current laws and their implementation with those of Hammurabi ,Draco, the Irish penal laws in 1695 and host of repressive laws in history.

  • I support the efforts that the DARPA is doing to improve US intelligence capabities. IIn the domaine of Cyber technologies , I believe that the DARPA and AIRPA should do something together after the last " Cyber attacks " done by the Chinese that leaded the Wikileaks scandal.

  • Rar

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    > The list of activities that would draw attention to a single person include “digging, loitering, picking up, throwing, exploding/burning, carrying, shooting, launching, walking, limping, running, kicking, smoking, gesturing,” according to DARPA’s contract description.

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