IARPA ramps up biosecurity investments in 2018 and beyond

biological research

The potential for biological weapons to wreak havoc on battlefields and against civilian populations is a key concern for security experts, and the intelligence community's experimental laboratory is taking a lead role in defending against this emerging threat.

"A larger part of IARPA's portfolio in the last year has been devoted to improving our biosecurity, our ability to detect and prevent biological weapons or disease outbreaks," said Jason Matheny, director of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, in an interview with FCW.

"The biotech industry has advanced significantly in the last few years. On the upside, there's great potential for medicine, for agriculture, for energy, for materials. On the downside, that means the ability for an individual to develop a biological weapon either potentially or accidentally that could kill millions of people has increased," he said.

IARPA has a few bio-centered research programs that will start this year that could help with biosecurity. FELIX, the Finding Engineering-Linked Indicators program, will focus on developing new tools for detecting whether an organism has been engineered, such as whether a genome has been edited. If successful, FELIX could help in the rapid detection of manipulated biologics that could be used in bioweapons.

Then there's Ithildin, which aims to develop advanced chemical sorbents that can selectively attach to different chemicals, such as those associated with chemical weapons, pollutants and explosives, to detect their presence at miniscule levels.

"It's such a priority," Matheny said of the need for biosecurity research, "to figure out whether a pandemic is occurring, or whether an organism found is really risky or whether it might be a biological weapon."

The future of encryption

Outside of biosecurity, IARPA is invested in finding better encryption solutions. Program HECTOR, which stands for Homomorphic Encryption Computing Techniques with Overhead Reduction, utilizes homomorphic encryption, which allows users to query encrypted data -- eliminating the need for full decryption at the user level.

"The idea would be that instead of having [Office of Personnel Management] data that you would leave unencrypted in a database, you would always keep data encrypted but you would still have the data be usable," Matheny said. "You could run queries on it, you could run calculations on it, and in doing so you would have data that's much more secure, that can protect privacy, while still being useful."

Another, called SuperCables, aims to develop superconducting computers that would secure hardware from penetration by enabling "energy-efficient high-data-rate interconnections between a superconducting data processor at 4 kelvins," or about -452 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the program's webpage. It's not quantum computing, but it allows for a different form of computation from regular "room temperature" computers, Matheny said.

Out with the DNA testing

With sights set on helping law enforcement agencies, IARPA's Proteos program aims to develop a technology that would use proteins, rather than DNA, to identify individuals.

"In a lot of cases, including law enforcement cases, we don't obtain a DNA sample that can be used for identification or prosecution," Matheny said. "DNA degrades in the environment quickly, and it's very difficult to obtain from things like shell casings or surfaces that have been touched. Proteins are much more plentiful but it's been a hard technical challenge to use proteins for identification."

IARPA's programs run for three to five years, and once the technical problems are solved, the technology is distributed to relevant agencies. Some of the tech becomes immediately deliverable and operable, but other solutions are only 80 percent complete when they are passed to an agency to finish.

Technology from defense and intelligence research labs has often been criticized for ending up in the "valley of death" between research and commercialization instead of in the field. Matheny said IARPA has those struggles too but tries to test field viability in the lab first to prevent tech from "gathering dust on a shelf."

Seventy percent of IARPA's developments make it over the valley of death, Matheny said, which includes programs that failed to meet the agency's goals but were still better than the current state of the art.

"Our partners throughout government still want things that work better than the state of the art even if it didn't achieve the milestones that it set for the program," he said.

About the Author

Lauren C. Williams is senior editor for FCW and Defense Systems, covering defense and cybersecurity.

Prior to joining FCW, Williams was the tech reporter for ThinkProgress, where she covered everything from internet culture to national security issues. In past positions, Williams covered health care, politics and crime for various publications, including The Seattle Times.

Williams graduated with a master's in journalism from the University of Maryland, College Park and a bachelor's in dietetics from the University of Delaware. She can be contacted at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @lalaurenista.

Click here for previous articles by Wiliams.


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