- By Shane Harris
Shane Harris is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, covering intelligence and cyber security. He is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State, which chronicles the creation of a vast national security apparatus and the rise of surveillance in America. The Watchers won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the Economist named it one of the best books of 2010. Shane is the winner of the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense. He has four times been named a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, which honor the best journalists in America under the age of 35. Prior to joining Foreign Policy, he was the senior writer for The Washingtonian and a staff correspondent at National Journal.
What do a voice identifier, an automated translator, a "tamper-indicating" document tube, and a supersecure manhole cover have in common? They’re all technologies for which the secretive National Security Agency (NSA) has been granted patents by the U.S. government, giving the agency the exclusive rights to its inventions.
The four technologies represent a tiny fraction of the more than 270 sleuthy devices, methods, and designs for which the nation’s biggest intelligence agency has been granted a patent since 1979, the earliest year for which public figures are available. As the patent holder, the NSA can license the particular technology — for a fee — to anyone who wants to use it, so long as the patent hasn’t expired.
The NSA’s cryptologists and computer scientists have been busy over the years inventing methods of encrypting data, analyzing voice recordings, transferring digital files, and removing distortion from intercepted communications — all things you’d expect from the world’s largest and most sophisticated eavesdropping agency. And the digital spooks have patented gadgets straight out of a James Bond flick, such as tamper-indicating envelopes and finely tuned radio antennas.
But then, inexplicably, is a patent for a new-and-improved child car seat, which can be modified to accommodate both toddlers and older, taller kids.* The national security benefits of this device are neither obvious nor spelled out in the patent. But the car seat’s inventors promise to finally overcome a "well known … measure of inconvenience" plaguing parents across America, who are forced to install new, bigger car seats as their children grow up, the patent states.
Foreign Policy obtained the NSA’s list of patents from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. You can download the entire list here or browse the patents by the dates they were filed. We’ve linked each one to the underlying documents, which include plain-language descriptions, the name of the particular inventor, and in some cases diagrams of the device.
List of All Patents Filed by the NSA
Scroll through the list to see patents filed by the NSA through the years. Click through on each to see full details from the Patent and Trademark Office.
The NSA employs tens of thousands of cryptologists, mathematicians, and computer scientists who routinely come up with novel ways to protect — and steal — electronic data. As a rule, the agency tries to claim the legal rights to its employees’ inventions, an agency spokesperson said. But in some circumstances, employees can claim the rights or file a patent on devices they invented on their own time, even if those inventions are based on knowledge that they accumulated while working at the agency.
That’s the case with former NSA Director Keith Alexander, who told FP in an interview on Monday, July 28, that he will seek as many as nine new patents for a computer security system he’s building at his consulting business, IronNet Cybersecurity Inc. Alexander led the NSA for nearly nine years, and he also served as the commander of U.S. Cyber Command. Those two positions gave him rare and privileged access to some of the most classified information in the government and could give him a leg up on other cybersecurity entrepreneurs.
As busy as the NSA’s inventors have been, the agency is far from the most prolific patent-filer. That title goes to the Navy, which obtained 383 patents in 2013 — unsurprising since the armed forces are constantly coming up with new weapons, communications, and sensing technologies, patent lawyers said. (The Army, with 155 patents, and the Air Force, with 44, were also big patent holders.)
Still, at the NSA, the last decade has been one for the patent record books. The agency has obtained 127 patents since 2005 — the year that Alexander became director. During his time in office (Alexander retired in March), the NSA obtained almost as many patents as it did in the previous 25 years.
*Correction, July 30, 2014. An eagle-eyed reader (sadly) points out that the NSA did not actually invent a car seat. Becuase of a clerical error, the patent was never changed to refelct the actual asignee, Chrysler Corporation. At the end of this document is a "certificate of correction" from 1993 that was, apparently, never processed. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Web site still lists the NSA as the car seat’s patent holder. (Return to reading.)