America Wants to Spy on Terrorists’ Bodily Fluids
Pentagon’s intel research arm plans computer chips to detect toxins
Building a chemical or biological terror weapon is dangerous work, because obviously. But even terrorists who take all the necessary precautions leave tell-tale signs of their work inside their bodies.
Now the U.S. military wants to be able to detect those signs. On Dec. 5, the Intelligence Advanced Research Project Activity released a request for proposal for “bio-intelligence chips” that can pick up on trace amounts of toxins and poisonous agents floating around inside captured terrorists.
The ultimate goal after five years of research is for the “labs-on-a-chip” (so named as they integrate tiny laboratory tools with microcircuits) to “rapidly assess an individual’s potential involvement in chemical or biological weapons,” as the agency puts it.
How rapid do they mean? Within about 30 minutes.
IARPA, of course, is the intelligence community’s version of DARPA—and its far-flung research can eventually end up in the hands of law enforcement and spying agencies such as the NSA, CIA and FBI.
The agency notes the bio-intelligence chips are just a research project and doesn't factor cost for building a commercialized tool—yet.
But the spies are looking at everything from analyzing proteins, DNA, RNA and studying subtle changes to the immune system. This also means hunting for molecules belonging to nerve agents that may have entered into the body.
The agency wants its chips to then analyze “multiple biomarkers found in physiological fluids, such as blood, saliva, sweat, feces, or urine, to assay human exposure to agents and activities indicative of (chemical or biological weapons) production and handling,” the request stated.
The underlying theory works like this: White blood cells and plasma help resist disease by adapting to—and remembering—invasive biological antigens long after the initial exposure. Likewise, vaccines are used to stimulate our immune system by building-long term resistance to viruses like the flu.
“We hypothesize that a terrorist working with ‘Threat A’ (a virus) will develop distinct biological signatures from his exposure to Threat A and the environment unique to producing it,” an appendix to the request put it. IARPA even sketched out a scenario.
First, a terrorist group creates a vaccination against a bioweapon using embryonated chicken eggs. A biologist working with the terrorist group then vaccinates himself before putting on rubber gloves. After that, he grows the virus inside a petri-dish for several days, extracts the virus from the growth and cleans any contaminated lab equipment inside a highly-pressurized steam bath.
The final step: he moves to a cage holding a family of furry, entrapped ferrets. He infects one ferret with the virus, which sickens the animal. The infected ferret sneezes, sickening the others. Then he waits to see how fast they die.
The result: one working bioweapon.
But every step leads to distinct “biosignatures” left over inside the biologist’s cells. There’s the antibodies produced inside the terrorist’s body by the vaccine, for one. He could have breathed fumes from the steam bath—a form of biohazard waste. He might have breathed in dander from the infected ferrets. His body may have even produced antibodies after contact with contaminated rubber gloves.
Not enough to get sick—these are only trace amounts—but just enough to make him detectable, in theory.