How IARPA Works

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence created IARPA to fill in gaps between the 16 agencies of the Intelligence Community.
Office of the Director of National Intelligence

"Game-changing," "paradigm-shifting," "disruptive." These are all catchwords government officials use to describe the desired outcomes of the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, or IARPA for short. And they aren't kidding around. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) created IARPA to give the U.S. Intelligence Community a booster shot of fresh science and technology innovations for combating enemies in a globalized world.

You can call this new weapon in the American spying arsenal "eye-ar-pah," "yar-pah" or just plain "I-A-R-P-A". Spurred by the information lapses surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks, the ODNI recognized the need for an organization to fill in the gaps between the 16 member agencies of the Intelligence community [source: Adee]. Its plan was folded into the ODNI's overarching strategy for increased cohesion among the scattered organizations (dubbed the 100 Day Plan for IC Integration and Collaboration) [source: 100 Day Plan]. According to its Web site, IARPA will engage in "high-risk/high-payoff" research projects to accelerate the pace of intelligence gathering and analysis and ensure that the U.S. information systems are safe from intrusion. First presented to the Congress in January 2007, IARPA has made swift progress in its brief history, naming its first director, Lisa Porter, in January 2008 and publicizing the first unclassified project proposals [source: Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008].


Such rapid progress is key for the fledgling organization to meet its primary purpose of accelerating the pace of U.S. intelligence capabilities. But while the media have compared it to the "James Bond" "Q Branch," IARPA isn't all about exploding pens or tiny guns. It aims to build better spy devices and technologies and also focus heavily on the social and cultural backgrounds of its targets. As you'll learn in this article, these efforts take on many different forms, such as a radar-cloaking device, software that rapidly translates foreign languages and video-scanning programs.Up first, let's take a closer look at IARPA as an organization and how it plans to facilitate these cutting edge research projects.

IARPA Infrastructure

Before being named director of IARPA, Lisa Porter worked for NASA.

The concept behind IARPA is to recapture the element of surprise in intelligence gathering [source: Lawlor]. The accessibility of the Internet and computers has opened up new communication channels for enemies, and the ever-increasing amount of information exchanged online has made culling through data a gargantuan task. Also, since the 16 agencies of the intelligence community must focus on their own day-to-day issues, IARPA plans to do the heavy lifting in terms of finding breakthroughs that will benefit them all. To understand how it will do this, we must first look at IARPA's ideological predecessor.

As its acronym implies, IARPA has a lot in common with DARPA, or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Activity. After the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, which served as the sounding gun of the space race, the United States responded by forming DARPA to help it catch up. This relatively small organization with a $3 billion annual operating budget now sponsors external research and development projects that can potentially yield dramatic results [source: DARPA]. Its commonly cited successes include the Internet and Global Positioning Systems (GPS) [source: Weinberger].


The Office of the Director of National Intelligence designed IARPA to follow a template similar to DARPA. Although the size of IARPA's slice of the $43 billion intelligence pie remains classified, it will outsource "high-risk, high-yield" research to public and private groups, including universities, companies and national laboratories. That means its home base at the University of Maryland won't be overrun with scientists and technicians fiddling with quantum computers [source: Lawlor]. Instead, it will scatter projects among different locations.

Overseeing those projects will be the recently named director, Lisa Porter, who came from NASA. Porter has a staff of 56 supporting her -- 35 of whom come from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and 21 from the CIA [source: Fein].

IARPA-sponsored ventures will fall into one of three program buckets, which are: smart collection, incisive analysis, and safe and secure operations. As you can see, each relates to information gathering, processing and protecting. Individual projects will generally last three to five years, with new ones continually circulating in.

At the end of the day, IARPA doesn't have an operational mission to fulfill. Its work is meant to reach beyond stated goals to solve future problems today [source: IARPA]. On the next page, we'll learn what exactly this means within the different IARPA divisions.


IARPA Initiatives

The resounding mantra of IARPA is "high-risk/high-payoff." As mentioned earlier, the research it sponsors through its three program offices aims for pie-in-the-sky, never-been-done-before types of results. But what does that translate to in the spy world? In what areas is the newest intelligence organization in the United States focusing its resources?

First, we know that IARPA's activities are broken down into three program offices: smart collection, incisive analysis and safe and secure operations. When potential project managers approach IARPA with ideas, their proposal must first answer the five "Heilmeier questions." These are named for George Heilmeier, former DARPA director, and they encompass the essential points researchers should be able to address before starting a project:


  1. What are you trying to do?
  2. How does this get done at present? Who does it? What are the limitations of the present approaches?
  3. What is new about your approach? Why do you think you can be successful at this time?
  4. If you succeed, what difference will it make?
  5. How long will it take? How much will it cost? What are your mid-term and final exams for testing the results?

[source: IARPA]

After successfully answering those questions and passing other employment requirements, such as gaining clearance to obtain Top Secret credentials, project managers are brought on board. For an idea of what they might be doing, let's explore the three program offices.

Smart collection means pretty much what it says. A large part of spy work is obtaining information about specific targets, such as people, companies or organizations. To streamline this process, IARPA wants to find new ways to know where to look for the information in the first place [source: Adee]. The "smart" in smart collection also refers to the quality of the information they get their hands on [source: IARPA]. Computer software that allows them to search networks 20 times faster won't do much good if it's pulling up invalid data.

Today, there is no lack of information floating around, particularly on the Web. Put the term "spy" into Google, for example, and it spits back 132 million matches. Here's where incisive analysis comes in. A major thrust of this department is on cutting the time it takes to go through those reams of data [source: Porter]. For example, consider information from foreign enemies in a language you don't know. IARPA's new "English Now" software has solved that problem by providing fast and accurate translations with key words highlighted [source: Shrader].

One interesting aspect of this program office is the emphasis on behavioral and cultural background of targets [source: Butler]. Because globalization has reduced many spy operations to the micro level, exploring individuals' cultural patterns and nuances is important.

If IARPA wants to put the surprise back in spy work, people can't know what agencies are up to. Think about the widespread problems of identity theft from hackers stealing personal records on computers, and you have an idea of how big a job this is. Because technology has leveled the playing field in terms of systems and information, projects within safe and secure operations will seek to keep U.S. networks on lockdown from intruders. That way, while the U.S. intelligence community investigates targets, those same targets aren't looking right back.

What unclassified projects and technologies are IARPA sponsoring right now, and will the effects of the research trickle down to the civilian level? Find out on the next page.


IARPA Plans: Today and Tomorrow

One focus of IARPA will be gathering information through computer networks and the Internet.
Thomas Jackson/Getty Images

For brilliant scientists and engineers who want a shot at IARPA, the organization actively recruits project managers, and your brilliant idea could be blessed for federal use. The public most likely will never know which ones make the cut because most IARPA efforts are classified [source: Adee]. But the intelligence organization has publicized some projects to give us glimpses into its high-security domain.

A project called "Reynard" has received a lot of buzz across the Internet because the next time you're playing "World of Warcraft" or exploring an online realm, an IARPA researcher could be watching you. An overview titled "Information and Behavior Exploitation in Virtual Worlds" explains the need to investigate the potential role of virtual reality platforms with cyber terrorism [source: Bush and Kisiel]. Since people can now exchange money through online games such as "Second Life" and covertly recruit and communicate with others around the globe, Reynard's goal is to find out just how much enemies could accomplish through these portals. Depending on what they learn, Reynard could evolve into a larger, longer-term study.


Watching people's casual online activities as described in Reynard is a mild example of data mining. More formalized data mining involves using special queries and codes to electronically filter information for signals of criminal or terrorist activity [source: Federation of American Scientists]. Interestingly, DARPA got in trouble with Congress in 2003 for a data mining project Total Information Awareness that zeroed in on too much private information [source: Shrader].

According to the February 2008 Data Mining Report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, IARPA has a handful of related ventures in the pipeline as part of its incisive analysis program office. In addition to Reynard, the report included four other data mining projects:

  1. Knowledge Discovery and Dissemination: develop the technology that can pull information from multiple intelligence databases at once
  2. Tangram: keeps tabs on people known as potential threats for any pattern changes that could warn of an elevated risk
  3. Video Analysis and Content Extraction: like Google search for video -- software that can scan video for specific things or people
  4. ProActive Intelligence: examines activities of enemy targets to try to find any distinct patterns

[source: Federation of American Scientists]

To handle the massive amount of data that intelligence employees must sift through, IARPA is also funding development of quantum computing capabilities [source: Porter]. These types of computers have the potential to process data much faster, which would undoubtedly make U.S. intelligence organizations more agile. For more information on the specifics of this technology, read How Quantum Computers Work.

IARPA has also started an endeavor called socio-cultural context in language (SCIL). As we discussed with the incisive analysis office, the purpose of SCIL is to incorporate the social and cultural background of language into the technology that interprets it. By understanding these contexts more clearly and immediately, IARPA believes that people will be better prepared to detect subtleties in language that can clue them in to targets' upcoming schemes.

With all of this and more going on, you may be wondering if the public will feel the effects of IARPA's work, as with DARPA and the Internet and GPS. Porter, the IARPA director, has predicted that since the technology that comes out of the research will be incredibly cutting-edge, there's a good chance it will trickle down to the stuff we use every day [source: Adee].


How IARPA Works: Author’s Note

Cristen Conger, Staff Writer
HowStuffWorks 2009

When I got the assignment to write about the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, or IARPA, I was initially concerned that I wouldn't be able to dig up enough information on the fledging intelligence operation. But I quickly learned that, while the spy community is hush-hush on the group's classified activities, plenty of information remains out in the open as well. So, though I couldn't obtain details like the official amount of federal government funding allocated to IARPA, its Web site, as well as interviews with its director, Lisa Porter, and other government officials, clued me in to how that funding would be used. And what's the most exciting IARPA project in this non-tech-savvy writer's book? Two words: quantum computers.


  • Adee, Sally. "Q&A With: IARPA Director Lisa Porter." Spectrum. May 2008. (June 4, 2008)
  • Bush, Rita and Kisiel, Kenneth. "Information & Behavior Exploitation in Virtual Worlds. Nov. 29, 2007. (June 4, 2008) worldsiarpanov071.pdf
  • Butler, Amy. "An Intelligence Approach." Aviation Week & Space Technology. Jan. 14, 2008.
  • Fein, Geoff. "Director, National Intelligence Set To Launch New Intel Research Activity." C41 News. May 24, 2007. (June 4, 2008)
  • Lawlor, Maryann. "Igniting a Technical Renaissance." Signal. October 2007.
  • Office of the Director of National Intelligence. "Data Mining Report." February 2008. (June 4, 2008)­
  • Porter, Lisa. "Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA)." May 2008. (June 4, 2008)
  • Shrader, Katherine. "Cloaking device? Spy-tech unit is working on it." The Associated Press. May 31, 2007. (June 4, 2008)
  • Weinberger, Sharon. "Introducing Iarpa: It's Like Darpa, But for Spies." March 24, 2008. (June 4, 2008)


How IARPA Works: Cheat Sheet

Stuff You Need to Know:

  • IARPA stands for Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity and is one of the newest members of the U.S. intelligence community.
  • Founded in 2008, IARPA's mission is to engage in "high-risk/high-payoff" research projects to accelerate the pace of intelligence gathering and analysis and ensure that U.S. information systems are safe from intrusion. In other words, IARPA intends to solve future problems today.
  • IARPA-sponsored ventures will fall into one of three program buckets: smart collection, incisive analysis, and safe and secure operations.

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