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DARPA Wants to Genetically Engineer Sea Creatures Into Spies

Lately, we’re just learning about all kinds of unique and interesting new government projects. After first learning about the Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program back in December, a program which reportedly collects and studies information about UFOs, almost nothing would seem surprising.

And, true to form, recent reports are now detailing what is called the Persistent Aquatic Living Sensors program, aimed at formulating ways that fish, dolphins, and other sea life might be used in novel ways to track submarines and underwater vessels piloted by enemies of the United States.

However, tracking enemy vessels isn’t all the program aims to do: it apparently hasn’t ruled out using technology to “modify” the way some aquatic species would engage in underwater spying, which has evoked ire from environmentalist and animal rights groups.

A group of skates… or possible future DARPA recruits.

According to DARPA’s website, “The Persistent Aquatic Living Sensors (PALS) program, led by program manager Lori Adornato, will study natural and modified organisms to determine which ones could best support sensor systems that detect the movement of manned and unmanned underwater vehicles. PALS will investigate marine organisms’ responses to the presence of such vehicles, and characterize the resulting signals or behaviors so they can be captured, interpreted, and relayed by a network of hardware devices.”

According to a statement from Adornato at the DARPA website, “Our ideal scenario for PALS is to leverage a wide range of native marine organisms, with no need to train, house, or modify them in any way, which would open up this type of sensing to many locations.”

In a recent MOTHERBOARD report, David Axe wrote that “DARPA proposes to modify some species in order to optimize their senses for detecting man-made objects. The resulting breeds would essentially be genetically-modified organisms and could disrupt or even collapse existing ecosystems.”

DARPA really isn’t “clowning around” anymore…

Should this give us cause for pause? Perhaps so, since genetically modifying existing organisms, in order to make them better at spying for our intel agencies could have unforeseen long-term side effects. However, this is by no means the first time that U.S. agencies have sought to alter animals–medically, genetically, or otherwise–in order to equip them for duties as spies.

In one famous instance, an estimated 20 million dollars was spent by the CIA on designing a surveillance system, which was implanted surgically within a house cat. This included a battery-operated microphone and an antenna, which was concealed by being inserted into the cat’s tail. In his book Loose Cannons: 101 Myths, Mishaps and Misadventurers of Military History, author Graeme Donald recounts the sad the maiden voyage of “Acoustic Kitty,” which took place outside the Soviet compound on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington, D.C. Upon being released, the wired cat’s mission was to monitor a conversation that would be occurring in a nearby park. However, as the cat crossed the roadway that ran near its target location, a speeding taxi struck it, and the $20 million project was abandoned.

There is, in fact, an even weirder history that involves the use of household pets for purposes of espionage, as I outlined in a 2014 article on the subject. However, all discussion of animal cruelty aside, perhaps modern technology would be more effective, and efficient, than past projects like the failed “Acoustic Kitty” had been. Still, that doesn’t necessarily make ideas like these any more ethical, especially with the potential for unforeseen consequences genetic engineering might present further on down the road.

For my part, I think I’ll have to side with the environmentalists on this one; in other words, maybe we should look before we leap… or as this case might entail, before we dive in head first. 

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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