What the Well-Dressed Spy May Soon Be Wearing

Photo credit: Wikimedia

By Debbie Burke


Memo to James Bond: Forget Brioni and Tom Ford bespoke suits. The US government’s Intelligence Advanced Research Products Activity (IARPA) is going into the fashion business with SMART ePANTS.


Side note: Who wants to apply for the job to create snappy government acronyms?

A reported $22,000,000 is being used to develop textiles that are washable, breathable, flexible, and comfortable with smart technology woven right into the fabric. Soon shirts, pants, socks, and, yes, even underwear may be able to record photos, video, audio, and geolocation data.

Instead of body cams and handheld devices, law enforcement personnel or intelligence gatherers simply wear smart clothing that performs similar tasks.

According to IARPA, components include “weavable conductive polymer ‘wires’, energy harvesters powered by the body, ultra-low power printable computers on cloth, microphones that behave like threads, and ‘scrunchable’ batteries that can function after many deformations.”

The result is surveillance and recording capability that is undetectable, as inconspicuous as a tiny slub in the material of a shirt or pants.

The developer of SMART ePANTS is Dr. Dawson Cagle. A July, 2023 article in Homeland Security Today quotes Cagle:

“As a former weapons inspector myself, I know how much hand-carried electronics can interfere with my situational awareness at inspection sites,” Dr. Cagle said. “In unknown environments, I’d rather have my hands free to grab ladders and handrails more firmly and keep from hitting my head than holding some device.”

He adds: “We’ve moved computers into our smart phones. This is the chance to move computers into our clothing and help the IC, DoD, DHS, and other agencies improve their mission capabilities at the same time.”

Cagle says his father’s diabetes was the inspiration for the smart textile technology he’s working on. He describes how his father used to perform five manual tests a day to track his blood sugar. Now, automatic monitors are incorporated into smartphones for immediate testing anytime.


So, the wearer may also be watched.

The feds aren’t the first to pioneer smart textiles.

Underwear with embedded electrical stimulators is used to prevent bed sores. 

Smart clothing is available to consumers to track biometrics for health and fitness monitoring and even to improve yoga form. 


At IARPA, the testing process for smart textiles is divided into three parts: 18 months to “build it”; 12 months to “wear it”; 12 months to “wash it.”

IARPA is the government’s “Gee Whiz” department that experiments with new possibilities for cutting edge technology. IARPA “invests federal funding into high-risk, high reward projects to address challenges facing the intelligence community.”

Sometimes their experiments succeed; sometimes they’re costly failures.

According to The Intercept, Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) is one such example. In 2013, IARPA inventors went to work on wearable material that could transform into protective armor for soldiers, similar to the “Iron Man” suit that Robert Downey wore in the 2008 film.

In a 2013 article on Mashable:

Norman Wagner, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Delaware, is using nanotechnology to create a liquid-ceramic material. The moment the thin, liquid-like fabric is hit with something — say, a bullet — it would immediately transform into a much harder shell.

“It transitions when you hit it hard,” Wagner told NPR. “These particles organize themselves quickly, locally in a way that they can’t flow anymore and they become like a solid.”


After six years of research at a cost of $80,000,000, The Intercept reports TALOS was shelved in 2019 without producing a usable prototype.

As writers, we understand how many times our stories fail before being accepted by an agent or publisher. Fortunately, the cost of our experiments rarely runs into millions or billions.

Vincent Van Gogh said: “Success is sometimes the outcome of a whole string of failures.”

The concept of surveillance clothing revs up the imaginations of thriller, espionage, and sci-fi writers. Books and films have a long history of providing fodder for future inventions. Our jobs as writers include being visionaries and prophets.

Now the only question left to answer about SMART ePANTS: Boxers or briefs?


TKZers: Have you used “gee whiz” inventions like SMART ePANTS in your fiction?

What story situations can you imagine where wearable surveillance garments play a role?

Have you invented a product or concept that could come to pass in the future?


This entry was posted in author tech tips, IARPA, James Bond, Sci-Fi, science fiction, SciFi, technology, Writing by Debbie Burke. Bookmark the permalink.

About Debbie Burke

Debbie writes the Tawny Lindholm series, Montana thrillers infused with psychological suspense. Her books have won the Kindle Scout contest, the Zebulon Award, and were finalists for the Eric Hoffer Book Award and BestThrillers.com. Her articles received journalism awards in international publications. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers. http://www.debbieburkewriter.com

33 thoughts on “What the Well-Dressed Spy May Soon Be Wearing

  1. Whoa, technology is amazing. Our hero is wearing smart clothing. It’s heavy because of all the electronics. In a scuffle, he’s shoved off a pier. He has to strip so as not to drown. Oo,maybe his love interest sees him climbing out of the water nekkie.

  2. But does human kind have the intelligence/moral clarity to use technology rightly? That’s what I think of when I read about things like this.

    Happily, I write in settings of days gone by. I don’t know how people who write contemporary stay on top of the constant ever-changing landscape of technology. That seems like a full-time job in addition to the writing itself.

    • Brenda, human ability to create inventions w/o looking ahead to the consequences of those inventions is limitless. I recently read a quote that resonated: “All progress creates and destroys.”

      I’m tempted to join you in days gone by!

    • “I don’t know how people who write contemporary stay on top of the constant ever-changing landscape of technology.” – The top secret super duper bio lab in Andromeda Strain has considerably less computing power than my wristwatch.

  3. JD Robb “invented” so many things for her In Death series that takes place around 2060 that didn’t exist then (maybe prototypes?) but do now, starting with smartphones, I think. One of the latest is the “Magic Coat” (so named by Eve, I think) that is body armor. Roarke Industries hasn’t developed smart clothes yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they did.
    I’m sticking to the more ‘tried and true’ for my characters, although I can see books becoming out of date quickly with the introduction of new technology. When I wrote Finding Sarah, cell phones were expensive and hardly household items. When I got the rights back, I added a “this book first came out in 2005” to my intro.

    • Terry, my first thriller Instrument of the Devil took place in 2011 as smartphones were taking off in popularity. Many “advanced” features the villain used to surveil the heroine are now as common and pervasive as mosquitoes.

  4. Wow, Debbie, interesting stuff. Smart eClothing.

    I would like to put my order in for ePants that would equip the woodsman. Tough material that doesn’t develop holes over the knees, control systems that allow the woodsman to control a robot “who” rolls a log to the log splitter, positions it on the splitter, and puts the split firewood into the truck. Hey, the robot might as well climb into the loaded truck and ride to the wood pile where eHeShe can unload and stack the firewood. Of course, I would become spoiled and want the robot to bring in firewood to the house for the stove.

    Fantasy is the other genre where you can invent anything your imagination can imagine. You can’t beat Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility for surveillance.

    Wonderful post, Debbie! Have a great week!

  5. Consider me gobsmacked. I also echo Brenda’s concern about privacy issues. Smart underwear — with video — is going too far, IMO. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. Fascinating, though, Debbie. You never fail to amaze!

  6. Formerly the stuff of science fiction, now coming to a place near you (or me, or everyone else). Corporate espionage anyone? For that matter, hiring someone with Smart ePants, Spy Socks or similar to surveil one’s political opponents would take opposition research to a whole new, more nefarious level. Then there’s use by private individuals to make other people’s private matters public.

    Ten years ago obnoxious wearers of Google glass who filmed others covertly while wearing the glass were dubbed “glassholes.” Now we could have creepy ePants.

    Makes me wonder if there are or will be textile and makeup countermeasures to make a target a blur? First there was an arms race, now a spywear one.

    Terrific, eye-opening post, Debbie!

    • Thanks, Dale. Are your underpants creeping up on you?

      You’re right that the arms race has morphed into a surveillance race where all-encompassing knowledge about people is the weapon to subjugate and control us. Scary indeed.

  7. Fascinating post, Debbie!

    I can envision a book where the hero’s mother warns him: “Be careful what you say. You never know whose underpants might be listening.”

  8. Wow! Just wow! Debbie, this is scary stuff.

    My brother just retired from his position as a senior research scientist at Georgia Tech Research Institute, and from what I gather, stuff like this is really a thing. He can’t say much about what research he’s been involved in, since he was (and still is) part of the intelligence community, but what he has said has widened my eyes for sure.

    I’d defer to Jeff Goldblum’s character, Ian Malcolm, in Jurassic Park.

    Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.

    And the bro agrees…

  9. I highly doubt that this clothing will be impossible to detect. It’s generating/using electricity. If it isn’t collecting the data on a local chip, it will be broadcasting it wirelessly (as in the medical use case). Current bug sniffers already pick up exactly that kind of thing. Detection will improve along side the technology.

    The next step will be cloth that electronically obscures or provides unreliable data to watchers. There are already face makeup patterns/tattoos that fool face recognition software, and there are fabrics printed with patterns (no electronics needed) to obscure body shape so a computer doesn’t ‘see’ a human. You can purchase jackets and backpacks that prevent penetration of electronic signals right now. (They also, unfortunately, block incoming calls to your cell phone.)

    • Kathy, wow, thanks for adding those fascinating details. I didn’t know about makeup to fool facial recognition software. You’re always a great source for cutting edge tech.

      You’re right that as fast as something is invented, detection tools are not far behind in a constant game of leapfrog. Measures, countermeasures, counter-countermeasures, counter-counter-countermeasures, ad infinitum.

  10. When textiles left my hometown, High Point not just for furniture, for overseas, a number of local textile science people started developing high tech cloth that couldn’t be made overseas. Most of it is now used for action wear and cold weather hunting gear as well as military use.

  11. The government does love a good (or not so good) acronym. I think my current favorite is “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001.”


  12. Great post, Debbie! This kind of stuff along with all of the new AI capabilities make a scary new world.

    P.S. In case anyone needs to know, I learned today that Ingramspark only allows you to add three contributors for each book. (If you need to add more than that for any reason, you’re out of luck.)

    • Thanks, Joanne. The genie is out of the bottle with AI. All we can do it keep as informed as possible and hang onto our common sense.

      You’re always passing on new info and I appreciate it!

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