The US wants to dress military in smart surveillance apparel

Privacy experts aren't thrilled by SMART ePANTS.
Pants on hangers
The SMART ePANTS program has funding from the Department of Defense and IARPA. Deposit Photos

An ongoing smart apparel project overseen by US defense and intelligence agencies has received a $22 million funding boost towards the “cutting edge” program designing “performance-grade, computerized clothing.” Announced late last month via Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), the creatively dubbed Smart Electrically Powered and Networked Textile Systems (SMART ePANTS) endeavor seeks to develop a line of “durable, ready-to-wear clothing that can record audio, video, and geolocation data” for use by personnel within DoD, Department of Homeland Security, and wider intelligence communities.

“IARPA is proud to lead this first-of-its-kind effort for both the IC and broader scientific community which will bring much-needed innovation to the field of [active smart textiles],” Dawson Cagle, SMART ePANTS program manager, said via the August update. “To date no group has committed the time and resources necessary to fashion the first integrated electronics that are stretchable, bendable, comfortable, and washable like regular clothing.”

Smart textiles generally fall within active or passive classification. In passive systems, such as Gore-Tex, the material’s physical structure can assist in heating, cooling, fireproofing, or moisture evaporation. In contrast, active smart textiles (ASTs) like SMART ePANTS’ designs rely on built-in actuators and sensors to detect, interpret, and react to environmental information. Per IARPA’s project description, such wearables could include “weavable conductive polymer ‘wires,’ energy harvesters powered by the body, ultra-low power printable computers on cloth, microphones that behave like threads, and ‘scrunchable’ batteries that can function after many deformations.”

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According to the ODNI, the new funding positions SMART ePANTS as a tool to assist law enforcement and emergency responders in “dangerous, high-stress environments,” like crime scenes and arms control inspections. But for SMART ePANTS’ designers, the technologies’ potential across other industries arguably outweigh their surveillance capabilities and concerns. 

“Although I am very proud of the intelligence aspect of the program, I am excited about the possibilities that the program’s research will have for the greater world,” Cagle said in the ODNI’s announcement video last year.

Cagle imagines scenarios in which diabetes patients like his father wear clothing that consistently and noninvasively monitors blood glucose levels, for example. Privacy advocates and surveillance industry critics, however, remain incredibly troubled by the invasive ramifications.

“These sorts of technologies are unfortunately the logical next steps when it comes to mass surveillance,” Mac Pierce, an artist whose work critically engages with weaponized emerging technologies, tells PopSci. “Rather than being tied to fixed infrastructure they can be hyper mobile and far more discreet than a surveillance van.”

[Related: Why Microsoft is rolling back its AI-powered facial analysis tech.]

Last year, Pierce designed and released DIY plans for a “Camera Shy Hoodie” that integrates an array of infrared LEDs to blind nearby night vision security cameras. SMART ePANTs’ deployment could potentially undermine such tools for maintaining civic and political protesters’ privacy.

“Wiretaps will never be in fashion. In a world where there is seemingly a camera on every corner, the last thing we need is surveillance pants,” Albert Fox Cahn, executive director for the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, tells PopSci.

“It’s hard to see how this technology could actually help, and easy to see how it could be abused. It is yet another example of the sort of big-budget surveillance boondoggles that police and intelligence agencies are wasting money on,” Cahn continues. “The intelligence community may think this is a cool look, but I think the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes.”