CIA's Impact on Technology

About CIA’s Impact on Technology

Virtually any job you can imagine is available at the CIA.  In addition to the more well-known jobs of analyst or core collector, the Agency needs medical professionals, IT specialists, graphics artists, and other skilled personnel–even sometimes hair stylists, carpenters, and seamstresses–to accomplish its mission of protecting the national security of the United States.  Because of the need to work in somewhat of an independent environment, the CIA must sometimes develop technologies to meet the unique requirements of its officers.  With this in mind, you might not be surprised to learn that, after a declassification process, publicly released technologies developed by CIA have gone on to impact the world in positive ways.

One of CIA’s best examples of such technology may hit closer to home than you’d think–the lithium-iodine battery.  Developed in the 1960s by CIA to solve the problems of varying reliability and short lifespan of batteries, the lithium-iodine battery improved the performance of surveillance equipment and prolonged the operation of reconnaissance satellites.  In the modern sense, the benefits of this declassified technology can be felt all the way from professional arenas such as, the medical community’s use of it in pacemakers, to less-formal arenas like powering your cell phone or digital camera.

The medical community often benefits from research and development performed by the CIA and other Intelligence Community organizations.  For example, to assist radiologists in detecting breast cancer, CIA provided technology originally developed for the analysis of satellite imagery.  Specifically, the technique involved aligning and comparing digital x-ray images taken over time to identify any changes.  These results were particularly helpful in diagnosing breast cancer in women under 50, where diagnosis is particularly difficult.  The use of these methods is believed to have considerably reduced the number of deaths from breast cancer.

CIA developed the Identi-Kit to assist in sketching the face of a person of interest based upon witness recollections. The kit breaks a full-face image into component parts–hair, brows, eyes, nose, lips, chin-line with ears, and age lines, plus beard, hat, and glasses, if any. It contains several dozen transparent slides picturing each of these components with different types of contours, 500 slides in all, with five notches on the side for different placements of each feature. From the kit’s catalog of slides, a witness selects those that best portray the subject person’s facial characteristics. The resulting image is not a finished portrait but a reasonably good line-drawing of distinctive physical contours.  A key benefit of the kit is the ease with which it permits a sketch to be sent quickly via telephone using only slide codes that enable reconstruction of the sketch with another kit.  The kit also provides a standardized set of facial descriptors that may be used in identifying a wide spectrum of individuals.  After intelligence officers thoroughly proved Identi-Kit’s utility in many real-life operations over recent years, CIA released it to police forces for use in apprehending criminals.

After retiring from CIA, Bob Barron leveraged his unique skillset to design custom prosthetics for patients who needed them. Here, Bob works on a prosthesis in his lab. (Photo courtesy of Robert Barron)

A non-traditional way that CIA has helped make a significant impact on the world is through one of its former employees.  Robert Barron, a currently certified clinical anaplastologist, honed much of his natural artistic talents during his work as a CIA disguise specialist.  Having retired from CIA in 1993, Barron now works with medically disfigured patients to improve their confidence and restore their sense of identity by designing prosthetics tailored specifically for each patient.  Barron credits his time at the CIA as the foundation for his second career, stating, “my work with disguises is what led me to where I am now.”  He further explained that each operational disguise piece he created at CIA was “unique and demanded creativity,” much like the prosthetics he currently designs.  If you are interested in reading more about Barron, click here to access a previously featured article about him.

Twenty-four years of altering identities as a Senior Disguise Specialist with the CIA honed Robert Barron’s ability to provide incredibly realistic and functional prosthetics for his patients.

Finally, the CIA-assisted technology probably most familiar to you is one many of us use on a regular basis:  Google Earth.  In February 2003, the CIA-funded venture-capitalist firm In-Q-Tel made a strategic investment in Keyhole, Inc., a pioneer of interactive 3-D earth visualization and creator of the groundbreaking rich-mapping EarthViewer 3D system.  CIA worked closely with other Intelligence Community organizations to tailor Keyhole’s systems to meet their needs.  The finished product transformed the way intelligence officers interacted with geographic information and earth imagery.  Users could now easily combine complicated sets of data and imagery into clear, realistic visual representations.  Users could “fly” from space to street level seamlessly while interactively exploring layers of information including roads, schools, businesses, and demographics.  In the private sector, this flyover capability was so compelling that multiple TV networks used EarthViewer 3D to fly over Iraqi cities and landscapes in news broadcasts using publicly available satellite images.  All of this acclaim eventually caught the attention of Google Inc., a multinational cyber-focused corporation, which acquired Keyhole in 2004, thereby laying the groundwork for the development of Google Earth.

So the next time you are exploring a new land from the comfort of your laptop or snapping pictures with your lithium-battery-powered digital camera, take a moment to think about some other ways CIA technology may have improved life outside its walls.


Warning: This video below may contain flickering or flashing scenes.

Related Artifacts

Digital X-Ray Detector Panel
Lithium-Iodine Battery