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The Not-So-Secret Tech the CIA Wants

The spy agency’s venture capital arm invests in everything from genome research to nanotech.

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Back in the day the CIA’s Cold War foes would do anything — including kill — to learn what high-tech gadgets the spy agency was trying to get into the field.

Nowadays, anyone interested can look up at least a chunk of that kind of information on the public website for a curious organization called In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s very public investment firm.

The nonprofit company, which began as In-Q-IT, was first revealed publicly in 1999. It was the result of a then-revolutionary idea: If the private sector can make a lot of the high-tech things the CIA wants, why not publicly put some skin in the game to help ensure the company’s success?

According to its website, In-Q-Tel “identifies startups with the potential for high impact on national security and works closely with them to deliver new capabilities that our customers need to boost their technological edge.”  The name was a semi-self-referential joke, a play on the irascible Q of the James Bond universe.

The concept began with Ruth David, a former CIA Deputy Director for Science and Technology, according to a profile of the company written by former In-Q-Tel senior official Rick Yannuzzi for the Defense Intelligence Journal in 2000. Yannuzzi said that David and her deputy, Joanne Isham, “were the first senior Agency officials to understand that the information revolution required the CIA to forge new partnerships with the private sector and design a proposal for radical change.”

In the digital boom of the late 90s, the CIA “felt itself being left behind,” Yannuzzi said. “The Agency’s leadership recognized that the CIA did not, and could not, compete for IT innovation and talent with the same speed and agility that those in the commercial marketplace, whose businesses are driven by ‘internet time’ and profit, could… 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.”

In the nearly two decades since the company’s coming out party as an IT specialist, the technological demands of spycraft have only raced forward in a million different directions. These days In-Q-Tel says it assesses approximately 1,000 companies every year for a potential investment of typically from $500,000 to $3 million.

That’s how the agency ended up with a current portfolio of dozens of companies, organized on In-Q-Tel’s website under headings like “Chemical Detection,” “Cyber & Mobile Security” and “Sensor Technology.”

Many of the investments are in firms that do work you would expect a spy agency to have a keen interest, like Rhevision Technology, Inc., which “produces advanced, tunable miniature camera lenses.” Or CyPhy Works, which specializes in what the In-Q-Tel’s profile calls “rugged and reliable aerial robotics.”

Others sound downright creepy, like the companies that research the sequencing the human genome — an eyebrow-raising field for a spy agency to take interest in. Before we all slip into conspiracy theory territory, other firms in the portfolio indicate In-Q-Tel’s “Biology” category is more about epidemic preparedness than creating an ethically dubious super-soldier program a la Captain America.

The strategy of partnering with private industry in the open apparently has been a successful one, as it’s been aped by other usually shadowy arms of the government, like the U.S. Special Operations Command and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity.

As for having the spy agency’s supposedly secret tech out in the open, Yannuzzi wrote that In-Q-Tel was designed to mainly do unclassified work, but still understood from the beginning that “its association with a U.S. intelligence agency will undoubtedly attract the interests of foreign persons, some with questionable motives.”

“The obvious security ramifications of this scenario were well considered in the decision-making process that led to In-Q-Tel’s formation,” he said.

Lee Ferran is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist and the founder of Code and Dagger, a foreign affairs and national security news website.