How Realistic Are The Mission: Impossible Spy Gadgets? A Real-Life Spycatcher Explains
A few Mission: Impossible gadgets are closer to reality than you might think.
Think of Mission: Impossible and chances are what first comes to mind — just after Tom Cruise’s daredevil stunts and the iconic theme music — is the action series’ spy tech.
While gadgetry played a bigger role in the James Bond movies of the 1960s than in the original Mission: Impossible TV series that debuted in the same decade, the movie franchise has embraced slick tech since its first film was released in 1996. But just how realistic or practical is that tech? An expert in both the espionage world and in digital technological advancements, Eric O’Neill, has the answer.
A former FBI counterintelligence and counterterrorism operative, O’Neill is best known for his central role in the February 2001 capture of Robert Hanssen, a higher-ranking FBI officer who spied on the U.S. for the Soviet Union and Russia. The crucial move in collecting evidence on Hanssen — snatching the Russia-allied spy’s Palm Pilot to access its encrypted contents before returning the device without being detected — reads like a scene right out of a Mission: Impossible movie, and O’Neill recalls it felt like one in the moment too.
“It’s almost science-fiction fun.”
“I felt very much like it was a scene in Mission: Impossible or any one of those spy movies,” O’Neill tells Inverse. But like many a Mission: Impossible heist, the whole thing almost ended in disaster. “I was certain I got it wrong and didn’t think I was going to survive the encounter.”
But despite sharing the close shaves with Mission: Impossible, O’Neill says the realism ends there. “It’s almost science-fiction fun,” he says. But he admits that when watching M:I, “I constantly am thinking, if I only had something like that, my job would have been so much easier!”
However, 27 years after the release of the franchise’s first film and 22 years after O’Neill moved on from the FBI, a lot of that tech is looking less like sci-fi. O’Neill, alongside longtime futurist Jim Carroll, reveals which five gadgets (and the tech that’s central to the latest film, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One) could be a reality.
Though Ethan Hunt and co. are dismissed by other government agents as “a bunch of grown men in rubber masks playing trick or treat,” the bait-and-switch of their utterly convincing disguises regularly earns them accomplished missions and audience-pleasing moments.
But the most iconic item in the IMF toolbox may be the least realistic.
Real disguises in espionage aren’t used to pass operatives off as a specific person.
“The disguise is not meant to completely, radically change your appearance,” O’Neill says, “but to subtly change your appearance in a way that is going to make you what we call ‘gray’ — unnoticeable, uninteresting, and not stand out.”
In his undercover work as a field operative in the FBI for five years, one of O’Neill’s best disguise kits, he recalls, was simple: a bald cap and a pair of glasses.
The closest thing to Mission: Impossible masks that reality has to offer is in the emerging field of regenerative medicine.
Carroll tells Inverse soon we’ll see 3D-printed teeth using live tissue. Other examples in recent years include a 3D-printed ear made from a patient’s own cells.
While the IMF can print a mask in a matter of minutes, in reality, it takes months to grow these replacement body parts for disfigured or disabled patients.
When it becomes evident that he’s suspected of being a mole, Ethan Hunt escapes Agent Kittridge (Henry Cznery, returning to the role in Dead Reckoning) in Mission: Impossible with the help of an explosive that looks like a stick of chewing gum.
You can categorize this one as possible but not practical.
“Do you really want to carry something like that around in your pocket?” O’Neill says. “If something goes wrong, you’re gonna get blown up.”
He points out that M:I’s gum appears to rely solely on a chemical reaction, as folding it in half is all that’s needed to have it explode a giant fish tank. Meanwhile, putty explosives like C-4 still require a detonator.
Gecko Feet-like Climbing Gloves
Ghost Protocol, the franchise’s fourth installment, entertainingly presented its team of agents contending with constantly failing tech, but it served up a handful of gadgets that were plenty compelling even amid their malfunctions.
Among them were the gloves that Ethan uses for his stomach-churning climb up the exterior of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. Colored lights on the gloves indicate whether the adhesive bond is engaged: “Blue is glue. Red: dead.” (Thanks, Benji.)
While you won’t see these exact gloves at your nearby Pier 1, the closest reality’s gotten to them came out of Stanford University in 2014. Then-PhD candidate Elliot Hawkes led the team that created gecko-like pads that combine springs and 24 adhesive patches to distribute weight well enough to make your Spider-Man dreams come true.
Carroll says that biomimetics — engineering and other fields using principles from various parts of nature to solve human problems — is “a very fast-moving field of science.”
What may be the least realistic (but also most thrilling) about the Burj Khalifa scene is the fact that an agent tries out this tech untested. “Before you went up the side of a huge skyscraper you’d probably want a good year of training on how to use them,” O’Neill says. Further proof there’s no one like Ethan Hunt.
Smart Contact Lens
Also seen in Ghost Protocol are contact lenses capable of facial recognition and text scanning.
Consider it the miniature, less detectable version of Google Glass. While Google’s smart glasses failed to go mainstream (blame the $1,500 price point, concerns about privacy, and the “glasshole” reputation that stuck to the device’s limited wearers), head-up display technology is still in use, most often known these days for its application in vehicles, displaying such information as speed or navigation directions.
And that contact lens may be a reality soon.
Within a few years after Ghost Protocol’s release, Samsung, Sony, and Google each had a patent for their version of a smart contact lens. We have yet to see these contact lenses on the market, but O’Neill says the military is looking at how this technology may be used, and Carroll says, “I think that’s one that we’ll look back in five years and go, ‘wow this one really happened.’”
O’Neill found himself envious of M:I’s fictional operatives who used this tech. “As a spy hunter I would have loved to have had some sort of head-up display that I could have without having to look at [another device],” he says, “because every time you look at your phone, every time you look at a map, or you look at notes, that’s something your target can notice.”
“That exists, absolutely,” O’Neill says of gait recognition systems like the one seen in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015).
A step beyond facial recognition, as Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) describes it in the film, the biometric of how a person walks is much more difficult to fake than a fingerprint.
Fooling a gait recognition system is possible, though. O’Neill says, “A very good dancer who studies the way a person moves could move exactly like that person moves and foreseeably beat a gait analysis device.”
And he points out that gait recognition systems don’t need a fancy hallway with an array of sensors and cameras like the one seen in Rogue Nation. “Right now you probably would only need a good programmer and one HD camera,” he says. “You can do facial, eye recognition, and gait analysis all at once.”
Warning: Spoilers for the plot of Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One.
One of the most-talked about types of technology today, and understandably sparking both excitement and concern is AI. The technology is at the center of Dead Reckoning Part One in the form of The Entity, a mysterious, sentient algorithm that can hack into numerous governments’ data and weapons systems. It can also mimic people’s voices and edit security footage in real time, rendering someone effectively invisible or making something appear there when it’s not.
Much of this AI’s capabilities are very real. If you’ve seen the videos of various celebrity voices deepfaked onto Leonardo DiCaprio at the UN, or read about criminals using voice-cloning technology to impersonate a mark’s loved ones, you know that AI can easily be used to impersonate someone’s voice.
Dead Reckoning’s characters say “truth is vanishing” thanks to The Entity, and that’s the concern of many with real AI. “Trust will soon become an uncommon commodity,” O’Neill warns. “In the next few years, we will not be able to trust anything we see or hear over the Internet.”
O’Neill says he’s “very worried” about advances in quantum computing. Some have called the U.S. and China’s respective efforts to create the first working quantum computer today’s Space Race, and O’Neill says the winner of that race is “going to cause horrible problems for any agency that doesn’t have the next level of quantum encryption.” One unforgettable image from Dead Reckoning — a warehouse full of government employees on typewriters rushing transfer sensitive data from digital to analog so The Entity can’t get to it — may feel like a real necessity if any nation’s enemies crack quantum computing.
“In the next few years, we will not be able to trust anything we see or hear over the Internet.”
While The Entity’s level of access and technical ability is plausible, the idea of AI doing all this independently, sentiently is still the stuff of fiction (whew!). Both O’Neill and Carroll echo most experts in contending that that self-aware AI à la Dead Reckoning’s The Entity or 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL 9000 isn’t going to happen anytime soon, if ever.
“What AI can do very well is what you ask it to do,” O’Neill explains.
“Will we see a lot of things go wrong? Yes. Will there be one giant, evil robot brain? I don’t think so,” Carroll says.
So, we can probably keep counting on going rogue to be Ethan Hunt’s thing, not AI’s.