DARPA Plans to Use Genetic Modification to Turn Plants Into Environmental Spies

(ANTIMEDIA) — The government’s newest surveillance program will use plants as instruments of data collection, according to a new report from the military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The program is specifically intended to assist operatives on the battlefield. The project, named Advanced Plant Technologies (APT), seeks to turn plants into next-generation surveillance technology.

In a statement, the agency said:

“The program will pursue technologies to engineer robust, plant-based sensors that are self-sustaining in their environment and can be remotely monitored using existing hardware…detect[ing] the presence of certain chemicals, pathogens, radiation, and even electromagnetic signals.”

DARPA will use gene-editing techniques to reconfigure plants to make them capable of reacting to certain types of stimuli in the environment. These plant-based sensors are self-sustaining and will be remotely monitored by the government agency. While the program will affect the plants’ genomes, it will not alter their ability to thrive in their natural environments.

“Plants are highly attuned to their environments and naturally manifest physiological responses to basic stimuli such as light and temperature, but also in some cases to touch, chemicals, pests, and pathogens,” said APT program manager Blake Bextine in the agency’s press release.

“Emerging molecular and modeling techniques may make it possible to reprogram these detection and reporting capabilities for a wide range of stimuli, which would not only open up new intelligence streams, but also reduce the personnel risks and costs associated with traditional sensors.”

DARPA, sometimes called the Pentagon’s Brain, has long been known for developing innovative but arguably dangerous technologies, including weaponized Agent Orange, covert data mining, anti-protesting weapons, and specially trained war mercenaries. With regard specifically to surveillance and data collection, DARPA has collaborated with the NSA to monitor video game players, developed biosurveillance tools, produced the notorious Total Information Awareness system. That system was responsible for the NSA’s PRISM program, which violated the civil liberties of millions of Americans.

These programs all started under the auspices of benevolent innovation. Once again, we see the complex dynamic between facilitating national security and preserving civil liberties, as one can easily question whether these plant censors could be used for domestic data collection or if they could be modified for other means.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which has acted as a sort of de facto technological watchdog over government and corporate programs, has previously issued critical statements regarding DARPA and other government agencies like the NSA. In one instance, they listed several questions for researchers exploring new and potentially dangerous technologies, including considerations about their security and whether or not they can be exploited. They concluded:

To be clear, we’re not saying that researchers should stop innovating in cases where the answers to those questions are more pessimistic. Rather, we’re saying that they may want to take precautions proportional to the risk.”

They have urged experts in the field to fully think through the ramifications of new research as it’s conducted.”

When it comes to developing new forms of surveillance, if we can be certain of anything, it’s that the government will not voluntarily relinquish its self-appointed power to monitor its citizens — so vigilance on everyone’s behalf is necessary.

(RELATED: If You Don’t Know What DARPA Is, You Should Probably Read This)

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