Future Tense

An In-Mouth Mic and Other Crazy Spy Technologies Subsidized by the CIA’s Investment Fund

A social media data mining engine and a tiny microphone that sits inside a person’s mouth are just two of the technologies that have attracted investment from the U.S.’s most secretive government agencies in recent years.

Casting a spotlight on In-Q-Tel, an investment fund for the CIA and other intelligence agencies, the San Jose Mercury News detailed Monday the behind-the-scenes role a number of Silicon Valley companies are playing in developing various spy tools.

Several of the companies—which are said to typically receive $1 million to $3 million from the fund —were “hesitant to talk” to the paper. Others declined to be interviewed or said they were prohibited from doing so. But those who did go on the record let slip some interesting details.

San Mateo-based Sonitus Medical revealed it is developing a tiny two-way wireless communications device for the U.S. intelligence community. The device covertly sits in a person’s mouth, the CEO of Sonitus said, and one of its chief attributes is that “nobody knows you are wearing anything.” Sonitus previously announced in 2009 that it had received In-Q-Tel funding and was designing a “hearing device to transmit sound via the teeth.”

Other firms to have attracted investment from the fund include San Francisco company 3VR, which offers a “facial surveillance” camera tool that it says allows organisations to “build, manage, and share watch lists of faces”; NetBase, which sells “semantic-search capabilities” that can analyze social networks in a number of languages and read “billions of sources in public and private online information”; and Silver Tail Systems, which sells a technology that can spot “suspicious activity” on government websites.

The Massachusetts-based Recorded Future, one of the companies based outside the Bay Area to have received In-Q-Tel funding, builds tools for intelligence analysts that it says help “foresee what may happen in the future.” A graphic on Recorded Future’s website shows how it was used to monitor and analyze media coverage of Occupy Wall Street protests—noting whether the coverage cast a positive or negative spin.

Oculis Labs, a Maryland firm which designs technology that can protect computer users from unauthorized “over-the-shoulder eavesdroppers,” has also received a cash injection from In-Q-Tel. Oculis Labs’ technology fuzzes out the screen and alerts the user when it observes, via webcam, what is described as a potential “shoulder surfer.”

The In-Q-Tel fund was launched in 1999, according to its website, to bridge the gap between the technology needs of the intelligence community and new advances in commercial technology. It says it is focused on “new and emerging commercial technologies” that can potentially give the CIA and broader U.S. intelligence community “mission-advantage.” The fund has financed more than more than 180 firms since its inception, nearly a third of which are based in Silicon Valley.