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Funded by Spies: 5 Start-Ups Running on CIA Cash
By Chandra Steele,
PC Magazine, 26 May 2016.

In the wake of the Edward Snowden data dump, the CIA and Silicon Valley have had a rather chilly public relationship. But the two are closer than you might think, with the US intelligence agency investing in some Valley ventures.

One that's received a lot of attention lately is Palantir. The shadowy, Peter Thiel-founded data-mining operation has hit a few roadblocks lately, according to a recent BuzzFeed profile. The company is reportedly buying up its own stock from employees rather than pursuing an IPO, perhaps because one of its investors is best known for its secrecy: In-Q-Tel.

In-Q-Tel is the arm of the CIA specifically set up to fund "projects of mutual interest to both the CIA and the commercial marketplace." It's been around since the late 90s, when the CIA became concerned that it was falling behind in the new digital age. The traditional government procurement process is less flexible than the "move fast and break things" motto of many start-ups, so In-Q-Tel looks to merge venture capital sensibilities with CIA cash.

While the funding flows from the agency to tech companies, the board of trustees is a blend of both, with academics and admirals serving. The mix of apparatchiks and app developers has led to some uneasiness, but In-Q-Tel shows no signs of slowing down. Over the years, it has invested in dozens of start-ups, with several added to its portfolio in the last year alone Check out below for a rundown of some of these more recent investments, which provides a glimpse into what the CIA views as critical technology in 2016 and beyond.

1. Skincential Sciences


You get secretly DNA tested! And you! And you! Clearista, a skin cream that has graced the pages of Oprah's magazine, is also beloved by the CIA. In-Q-Tel is one of the backers of Skincential Sciences, a firm that sells consumer skin creams, but also provides dermatological professionals with a system that clears skin and collects biomarkers in the process. Skincential CEO Russ Lebo told The Intercept that simple DNA collection is the reason In-Q-Tel gave for being interested in the company.

2. Geofeedia


Social media had its breakthrough moment in social change with the Arab Spring. Since then law enforcement has become serious about tracking protesters through the same platforms they use to organize, whether it's in Cairo or Ferguson. Geofeedia makes that much easier. The location-based intelligence platform is designed to let clients "predict, analyze, and act" on social media conversations. It's noticeably absent from the list of companies on In-Q-Tel's site, but The Intercept obtained documents showing it to be one of many such social-media-scanning holdings.

3. Cylance


It's not often that tech and science luminaries like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking warn against advancements in their field, but they do with artificial intelligence. So far the greatest threat it seems to pose is the societal disconnect it fosters with products like Google Allo, which can craft conversations for you. But AI becomes slightly more nefarious when the CIA becomes involved, as it has with Cylance, a company that uses artificial intelligence to combat malware.

4. Phantom


Phantom orchestrates software security operations. As TechCrunch notes, it can "take humans out of the loop" and act on cyber attacks with military precision. In an age when hackers are targeting private companies and government agencies alike, this type of software is likely of great interest to the CIA.

5. CyPhy

CyPhy is looking to make drones a part of everyday life, whether it's monitoring runners in the Tokyo Marathon (above) or predicting crime. CyPhy's CEO Helen Greiner first introduced robots into our homes by letting them vacuum for us when she cofounded iRobot. CyPhy calls to mind Chappie, where tiny, friendly household robots are created by the same person responsible for security-minded behemoths.

[Source: PC Magazine. Edited. Some links added.]

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