The CIA’s In-Q-Tel is Investing in Startups That Can Predict the Future
We tend to unknowingly or neglectfully expose a lot of our personal data on the internet and often times it’s not our fault. Social networks and digital applications, marketed as a utility or source of entertainment, can also be used for mining data and giving corporations incredible insight into our personal lives. That data is then analyzed and stored to develop a profile that decides the best way to target us with advertisements.
That’s not so surprising anymore; we’ve become keen on recognizing these marketing techniques and come to expect them. It becomes unsettling however when the CIA has a role in this game and seeds start-ups to develop technology to mine data for its clandestine agenda. This is also nothing new, but not many people are aware of the CIA’s venture capital arm, In-Q-Tel, which has backed some of Silicon Valley’s most prevalent advents, influencing widely used Google apps and possibly even Facebook. So, what is In-Q-Tel, and should we be concerned?
In-Q-Tel’s Keyhole Becomes Google Earth
In the early 2000s, the development of Google Earth made geospatial technology an exciting prospect in the tech world. Unsurprisingly, this technology was controversial and banned in some countries due to national security concerns and privacy issues. What is also unsurprising is that it was originally developed by a startup that was funded by In-Q-Tel, called Keyhole EarthViewer. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, or NGA, was cultivated out of this new technology as a parallel branch to the NSA that focuses on exploiting and analyzing geographical information and activity.
In-Q-Tel’s budget started off at $28 million in its first year and has been somewhat hazy ever since. After Sept. 11, 2001, the government’s black budget for intelligence agencies increased dramatically, with the CIA now receiving about $14.7 billion. In-Q-Tel can access this money without having to fully disclose its spending. It also doesn’t participate in requests for comments or interviews with the media.
In-Q-Tel, since its inception in 1999, continues to fund start-ups in the tech world ranging from skincare lines to novel drone technology, but much of its investment goes into data mining. These tools collect, store, and analyze data to create profiles on individuals, groups, and events that are of interest to the CIA, law enforcement, and corporations. Often these programs mine platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to monitor activist protests, influential “decision-makers,” and trends. One day these algorithms surveil our personal data and activity, and the next they’re being sold to corporations for advertising.
Who is in In-Q-Tel?
In-Q-Tel is headed by Gilman Louie, a former video game designer, turned venture capitalist. Some have made note of Louie’s connections with board members of the venture capital firms that gave Facebook the funding to become the social media juggernaut it is today. One connection is with James Breyer, a partner and board member of Accel, the company that invested $12.7 million in Facebook’s Series A funding.
Louie and Breyer sat together on the board of military defense contractors, BBN, known for essentially helping to create email and the internet. Facebook’s second round of funding came from a company called Greylock Venture Capital, headed by Howard Cox, who also sat on In-Q-Tel’s board.
Another interesting connection that has been made with Louie is his role with Niantic, the mobile gaming company that created Pokèmon Go. Louie was added to the board of the company for his strategic insight in both gaming and venture capital investment. The augmented reality technology for Pokèmon Go was also a product of Keyhole, Inc., the In-Q-Tel funded start-up that became Google Earth.
Users of the game are required to allow the program to access personal data ranging from geolocation services to camera access, and it even has the capability to remotely read, modify, or delete files on a user’s phone. The program can track where users are, where they’ve been, what they look like, and a multitude of personal information that could be used to create profiles and spy on individuals. This begs the question; is this a beta test for a larger CIA-sponsored program?
What is In-Q-Tel Investing In?
While this may seem overly paranoid, it falls in line with other In-Q-Tel tech investments. Dataminr is one such blatantly named startup that uses Twitter data to spot trends that can be used to benefit law enforcement, ostensibly monitoring for terrorist threats. But what else can this data be used for and what are the ethical concerns with the profiles that are being built with this information?
Edward Snowden’s exposé showed the NSA’ ability to use metadata to paint a very intrusive image of innocent civilians. This technology could be easily manipulated with a deluge of false tweets sent to intentionally cause a panic, considering the tweets aren’t verified. An attack of this nature could be carried out by hackers or even the government itself in a false flag operation.
Other companies In-Q-Tel has invested in that monitor and analyze social media data include GeoFeedia, Pathar, and TransVoyant. But one of the more invasive projects, Palantir, is as unsettling as its name. Palantír, in Lord of the Rings, is an omniscient crystal ball that can see anything, anywhere, including into the past and future.
The company was created by Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal and former board member of Facebook with other In-Q-Tel venture capitalists. Palantir created a system, much like the premise of the movie Minority Report, where law enforcement can predict crime before it happens. It has been touted for its success in military applications and is being implemented in law enforcement with “predictive policing” efforts. The prescience of Tom Cruise’s dystopian police state is uncanny. Some believe this to already be a factor in the recent disparities in police shootings and as an instigating force in growing police militarization.
In-Q-Tel’s business model made it highly successful in a number of ways. It has essentially become an indicator of success in the venture capital world, with every $1 of investment from In-Q-Tel drawing more than $9 from private investors. So, if In-Q-Tel decides it likes a startup’s idea, its investment will draw significant attention from other venture capitalists, letting the private sector fund technology that benefits the CIA’s clandestine programs.
In-Q-Tel also only answers to the CIA instead of traditional investors, despite the CIA’s funding coming from taxpayer dollars. It is considered a non-profit that is unconcerned with monetary earnings, but rather tech capital – again easy to do when you don’t have to answer to investors. A contract with the CIA is now like gold for tech startups looking for seed funding, given the success, influence, and amount of money In-Q-Tel has, but where should we draw the line for government access and transparency? If this technology is being used to spy on us, perpetuate the militarization of law enforcement, and potentially create a more aggressive police state, shouldn’t we have a say in these things?
Professor Finds $21 Trillion Missing from Government Budget
A Michigan State University economics professor discovered $21 trillion unaccounted for in the federal budget starting in 1998 until the end of fiscal year 2015. Professor Mark Skidmore enlisted the help of his graduate students to examine government documents from the Department of Defense and Housing and Urban Development to uncover an unfathomable amount of unauthorized spending.
According to the Constitution, all federal spending must be voted on and authorized by Congress each fiscal year. Any discrepancies found in the way of unauthorized spending would normally elicit a congressional hearing and investigation.
Skidmore and his students’ analysis used publicly available government documents from the two agencies’ websites to expose this inconsistency. Shortly after Skidmore published his findings, both agencies removed those documents from public access.
While no congressional committee tied to the budget had signaled the would open an inquiry prior to Skidmore’s findings, the Department of Defense allowed a first ever department-wide audit by independent firm Ernst & Young.
Skidmore says that sometimes there can be discrepancies meant to account for inadequate transactions, but those adjustments are usually no more than 1 percent of the total budget.
The Army’s annual budget for FY 2015 was $122 billion, meaning that an adjustment for inadequate transactions might be around $1.2 billion. The Army’s actual adjustments for FY 2015 were $6.5 trillion – 54 times what it was authorized to spend.
Out of thousands of documents spanning that period, Skidmore was able to find Army budget documentation for 13 of those years, saying its budget represented roughly $11.5 trillion of the missing $21 trillion. He also called these accounting documents “opaque,” saying it was not clear what the unauthorized adjustments were for.
That amount of unauthorized, “missing” money is equivalent to about $65,000 for every person in America. The government estimated that the federal deficit sits at around $20 trillion, an entire $1 trillion less than what Skidmore found missing in these adjustments.
So, what exactly is this money going towards? The revelation of a $56 billion Pentagon black budget for secret military, space, and surveillance programs has led some to speculate that it could be merely a fraction of what’s actually being spent.
Skidmore said he reached out to the Office of Inspector General, the Government Accountability Office, and Congressional Budget Office, asking if maybe the $6.5 trillion figure was a mistake and was instead supposed to be $6.5 billion. It was confirmed that $6.5 trillion was the correct adjustment. Though, when he asked if any of these agencies were alarmed or considering this a red flag, his questions were met with slight confusion and little concern.
Though Skidmore has reserved his speculation as to what he thinks the money might be going toward, it’s clear that either someone knows that a large amount of taxpayer dollars is being spent without authorized permission, or the accounting practices of those in charge of massive amounts of public money are that flawed.