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DARPA looks to head off threats from off-the-shelf tech

In a world where 3D-printed guns are a reality, security threats are no longer the reserve of a hostile nation's military. With advanced technologies increasingly accessible to groups and individuals, DARPA is initiating a program called "Improv" that's intended to identify and anticipate potential threats from commercially-available off-the-shelf technology.

If you surf the Internet enough, you're bound to come across a story about how an old-fashioned Nokia mobile phone or a simple Casio digital watch still sells in large numbers in some parts of the world despite their being hopelessly obsolete. According to defense analysts, part of the reason for this mysterious popularity, aside from their retro cool, is because they are very good as bomb components for terrorists.

This deadly repurposing illustrates the problem that the United States and other advanced military powers face. The US defense strategy is based on maintaining a technological advantage over potential adversaries, but according to DARPA, off-the-shelf equipment for civilian industries such as transportation, construction, agriculture, and other commercial sectors include a frightening mixture of very advanced technologies that can be turned to nefarious applications.

If you've ever been on an airliner and wondered why your phone's GPS doesn't work, that's because the hardware is programmed to shut down if it thinks it's been installed in a missile. All sorts of devices have similar safeguards or are covered by export restrictions to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands, but none of that does any good if the technology isn't recognized as a threat in the first place.

DAPRA's answer is to launch the Improv initiative wherein engineers, biologists, information technologists – experts and hobbyists from many different fields – will look a ways in which off-the-shelf electronics and other components can be converted or combined into potential security threats using rapid prototyping and open-source code.

As part of the process, DARPA says that is will look at each candidate project and the most promising will go on to full development. The goal is to go from submission to full working prototype in 90 days. Depending on results, some may go on to further study.

"DARPA often looks at the world from the point of view of our potential adversaries to predict what they might do with available technology," says program manager John Main. "Historically we did this by pulling together a small group of technical experts, but the easy availability in today's world of an enormous range of powerful technologies means that any group of experts only covers a small slice of the available possibilities. In Improv we are reaching out to the full range of technical experts to involve them in a critical national security issue."

DARPA will provide information to those wishing to propose a project in aProposers Day webcast on March 29, repeated on March 30.



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