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Beauty Secrets of the Spies: CIA Begins Investing in Skin Care Products That Collect DNA

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The Intercept’s Lee Fang discusses his recent exposé on how In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the Central Intelligence Agency, is funding the manufacturer of Clearista, a popular beauty product. Clearista’s parent company, Skincential Sciences, has developed a patented technology that removes a thin outer layer of the skin, revealing unique biomarkers that can be used for a variety of diagnostic tests, including DNA collection.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: All right, this piece that you just wrote about the CIA’s venture capital arm funding skin care products that collect DNA, what is this all about, if you buy this cream that, oh, erases blemishes and softens your skin?

LEE FANG: We did a story on Friday that revealed for the first time that In-Q-Tel, which is the venture capital arm of the CIA, had invested—is investing in Skincential Sciences. This is a company that developed a special patented technology that combines water, detergent and a pen-like device to rub against the skin and remove an upper—thin upper layer of skin in a painless way for diagnostic purposes. This could be used for medical purposes, early detection of melanoma, but also for collecting DNA for potential identification purposes or other purposes. As this company progressed, they realized that this technology also had a cosmetic value. So, the public-facing side of this company has a product line called Clearista. And you—

AMY GOODMAN: Clearista.

LEE FANG: Clearista. And you might have seen it on YouTube. They market it very heavily on social media, in Oprah’s magazine, O magazine, and other places. And, you know, this is an interesting product line. But what hasn’t been acknowledged or publicly reported is that this company also has a partnership with the CIA. And the CIA is very interested in developing technology where they can use biomarkers to collect DNA.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain more how it works.

LEE FANG: It’s kind of like a Tide pen. You know, instead of rubbing this pen against your clothes to remove stains, this is a special pen used to rub against the skin and removing a thin upper layer.

AMY GOODMAN: So it removes a thin upper layer of the skin?

LEE FANG: Right, and clearly, it also has a cosmetic value, because folks have used it, and it’s been modified to be used to erase blemishes, to get rid of dark patches on the skin. But the CIA is also interested because they’re interested in ways to collect DNA, though they haven’t been more specific about their intent on how to use this technology.

AMY GOODMAN: So, it’s called Skincential Science?

LEE FANG: Yes. This company is one of hundreds of companies invested in by In-Q-Tel. In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital arm, was founded in 1999 by then-CIA Director George Tenet as a way for the CIA to develop partnerships in Silicon Valley and to find cutting-edge technology that could then be used by either the CIA or other partner intelligence agencies. We don’t know much beyond that, because In-Q-Tel does not disclose all of its investments. Our disclosure of the relationship with Skincential Sciences was new; it was not previously reported. And we don’t know exactly how they use the technology that they gather through these venture capital partnerships. Very little is reported out. In-Q-Tel reports to the CIA’s inspector general and through classified briefings to the Senate Select Intelligence Committee. But beyond that, there’s very little revealed to the public.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you interviewed the chief executive of Skincential Sciences, Russ Lebovitz?

LEE FANG: Yes, that’s right. We had a long interview. And Russ Lebovitz said he was very confident in the partnership with the CIA. He called them “great partners.” But he said that he didn’t know the exact intent of the CIA in why they’re investing in this company. He suggested maybe that this technology could be used by law enforcement, perhaps at crime scene DNA collection, for those purposes, or potentially for drug tests, you know, testing for drugs through the skin rather than perhaps hair or blood tests. But he didn’t know, beyond that, why the CIA is investing in his company. And I found that very interesting.

AMY GOODMAN: The CIA fund has described human skin as a “unique, underutilized source for sample collection”?

LEE FANG: Yeah, that’s right. You know, In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital arm, has invested in several hundred tech companies, but a small handful of biotech companies. And they’ve published some research, that we featured in this article, showing that they’re very interested in harnessing the latest developments in medical-type technology for intelligence purposes.

AMY GOODMAN: David Petraeus, what was his role as director of the CIA, talking about In-Q-Tel?

LEE FANG: Well, there’s been some published criticism of In-Q-Tel, even from folks who are sympathetic to the intelligence agency, saying that, you know, we really don’t know if this taxpayer-funded effort to partner with Silicon Valley really provides useful intelligence technology. But David Petraeus was very supportive of In-Q-Tel, giving a speech a few years ago saying that these technological breakthroughs are critical for the CIA and other partner intelligence agencies. So, he gave it a ringing endorsement.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, it sounds like people should beware of Clearista. They may be revealing more than they are concealing. Thank you very much, Lee Fang.

LEE FANG: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Lee Fang, investigative journalist at The Intercept covering the intersection of money and politics. We’ll link to his piece, “CIA’s Venture Capital Arm Is Funding Skin Care Products That Collect DNA,” the headline, “Beauty Secrets of the Spies.” We’ll link to it at

When we come back, we look at police killings here in California of a homeless man, most recently, and we’ll talk about the story of Alex Nieto. Stay with us.

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