New Scientist – US spy agency’s patents under security scrutiny

From: Andrew Johnson

Date: 2005-10-28 13:51:19… US spy agency’s patents under security scrutiny 17:45 27 October 2005 news service Paul Marks The hyper-secretive US National Security Agency – the government’s eavesdropping arm – appears to be having its patent applications increasingly blocked by the Pentagon. And the grounds for this are for reasons of national security, reveals information obtained under a freedom of information request. Most Western governments can prevent the granting (and therefore publishing) of patents on inventions deemed to contain sensitive information of use to an enemy or terrorists. They do so by issuing a secrecy order barring publication and even discussion of certain inventions. Experts at the US Patent and Trademark Office perform an initial security screening of all patent applications and then army, air force and navy staff at the Pentagon’s Defense Technology Security Administration (DTSA) makes the final decision on what is classified and what is not. Now figures obtained from the USPTO under a freedom of information request by the Federation of American Scientists show that the NSA had nine of its patent applications blocked in the financial year to March 2005 against five in 2004, and none in each of the three years up to 2003. Keeping secrets This creeping secrecy is all the more surprising because as the US government’s eavesdropping and code-breaking arm – which is thought to harness some of the world’s most powerful supercomputers to decode intercepted communications – the NSA will have detailed knowledge of what should be kept secret and what should not. So it is unlikely to file patents that give away secrets. Bruce Schneier, a cryptographer and computer security expert with Counterpane Internet Security in California, finds the development “fascinating”. “It’s surprising that the Pentagon is becoming more secretive than the NSA. While I am generally in favour of openness in all branches of government, the NSA has had decades of experience with secrecy at the highest levels,” Schneier told New Scientist. “The fact that the Pentagon is classifying things that the NSA believes should be public is an indication of how much secrecy has crept into government over the past few years.” However, at another level, the Pentagon appears to be relaxing slightly: it seems to be loosening its post 9/11 grip on the ideas of private inventors, with the number having patents barred on the grounds of national security halving in the last year. In the financial year to 2004, DTSA imposed 61 secrecy orders on private inventors, a number that had been climbing inexorably since 9/11. But up to the end of financial 2005, only 32 inventors had “secrecy orders” imposed on their inventions. Overall, the figures obtained by the FAS reveal 106 new secrecy orders were imposed on US inventions to March 2005, while 76 others were rescinded. So there are now 4915 secrecy orders in effect – some of which have been in effect since the 1930s. Related Articles Patents gagged in the name of national security… 09 July 2005 Transforming US Intelligence edited by Jennifer E Sims and Burton Gerber… 24 September 2005 Hand over your keys… 13 January 2001 Weblinks Invention secrecy activity, Federation of American Scientists… US Department of Defense US National Security Agency

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