The NSA's Clearance Rack Goes Public, Offering An Assortment Of Declassified Patents For Use In The Private Sector

from the civil-liberties-fire-sale-still-ongoing dept

All the money being poured into the NSA (under the cover of darkness) over the past several years is paying off. Taxpayers who helped fund the NSA’s programs have the opportunity to pay even more money for the privilege of licensing the non-classified fruits of the agency’s labor.

So if you’re looking to buy a tool to transcribe voice recordings in any language, a foolproof method to tell if someone’s touched your phone’s SIM card, or a version of email encryption that isn’t available on the open market, try the world’s most technologically advanced spy agency.

It’s called the Technology Transfer Program (TTP), under which the NSA declassifies some of its technologies that it developed for previous operations, patents them, and, if they’re swayed by an American company’s business plan and nondisclosure agreements, rents them out.

There’s actually no “transfer” going on here. Nearly everything in the catalog [pdf link] (with the exception of a few, decidedly unimpressive physical items near the back) is a license, and quite possibly a non-exclusive license at that. (Companies can lock other companies out, but not the government itself, and the catalog notes that licensees will have to relinquish sole control “within a reasonable period of time.”) Should the NSA decide it can trust a company with its leftover inventions, it will have an opportunity to utilize stuff most companies don’t really need or technology that’s hardly state-of-the-art at this point. While some of this could be a potential starting point for bigger and better stuff, most of the offerings are leaving security/cryptology experts underwhelmed.

[Bruce Schneier] was dismissive of the remarkability of the agency’s cryptographical offerings. “It’s not new, it’s very old, a few decades,” he said of one product, listed as a Cryptographic Efficient Elliptic Curve.

“It’s a way to get your door locks a little bit better. Does that change the value of your house? Kind of, not really,” he said. “These are all pieces of plumbing. Plumbing has value, but this is one of the problems of patent law. Patents really overstate the value of plumbing, of technology. It’s a little value, sure, but it’s never gonna make or break a business.”

In some of the released tools, you can see the origins in bulk metadata/communications harvesting. One patented product automatically detects voices in audio recordings. Another deals with creating cryptographic key escrow accounts for “third parties” to access encrypted files. Various data visualization programs separate needles from haystacks, while multiple tools tackle the task of turning virtual reams of text into coherent summaries.

While the NSA is following the spirit of the statute ordering the redistribution of government knowledge, it’s probably the agency least likely to declassify anything groundbreaking. The best stuff still remains locked up. One also has to question the timing of this catalog release — it’s offered this service for years, but this is the first time the NSA has ever made the document public. Is this just another stab at rehabilitating its reputation, albeit one approached at a very oblique angle? Someone inside the NSA seems to think so.

The Daily Dot relayed one NSA employee’s claim to Schneier, that the TTP was a means of injecting federally-funded research back into the U.S. economy.

Well, only if you take the most generous view of the NSA’s scattershot collection of fine licensables. Schneier doesn’t take this view.

“Bullshit,” he responded. “The NSA’s not stimulating the economy. They just said that and it sounds good. They just made that up.”

No, it very definitely isn’t stimulating the economy, at least not anywhere outside the Beltway. The damage the public disclosures have had on the private tech sector very much outweighs the potential income created by the NSA’s mandated return of publicly-funded research and development — a “return” that isn’t a gift but a perpetual license and one that’s only available to the companies the NSA chooses to work with.

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Comments on “The NSA's Clearance Rack Goes Public, Offering An Assortment Of Declassified Patents For Use In The Private Sector”

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mister anderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Don't we already own them?

I am a federal employee in technology research & development, and I’d like to give some perspective on this from the inside.

Any work that I do in my job that is novel can be patented. This patent can be used by the US Government for US applications without additional cost to the government or royalty to me. I only see royalties if my patent is licensed for use in non-domestic applications, such as foreign military sales.

We patent our ideas to protect the government and the taxpayers. the government does not manufacture anything, instead contracting that out. A fair amount of R&D is also contracted out. If I have the patent on work done that was funded by the taxpayer, the contractors can use it without royalty. However, if the contractor has the patent, they can (and do) charge 5-10x what the item is worth because of their “proprietary technology.”

mister anderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Don't we already own them?

Yep, that’s pretty much the scope of it. Really, it’s more focused on protecting the Government’s interest and the taxpayer’s investment in the technology from unscrupulous contractors.

Such as a contractor filing for a patent on USG developed tech using the slide deck that was presented to them by USG engineers (actually happened, btw). Or another contractor being granted a patent on tech that was developed by USG engineers, who presented their tech as evidence of prior art, but were ignored.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Don't we already own them?

” If I have the patent on work done that was funded by the taxpayer, the contractors can use it without royalty. However, if the contractor has the patent, they can (and do) charge 5-10x what the item is worth”

That would imply that these are purely DEFENSIVE PATENTS, which is not the way the patent system was ever intended to work.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Don't we already own them?

I find this explanation to be a bit depressing. Surely, if you as a government employee has done something that could be patented, but then later on a contractor patents it instead, the contractor’s patent could be invalidated (or blocked from being issued) based on your own prior art. Is this not the case?

Anonymous Coward says:

I wouldn’t trust anything in the NSA’s catalog. It’s despicable how the US Gov. is selling taxpayer funded technology for profit.

The US doesn’t seem to have a problem giving away tanks, grenade launchers and automatic machine guns to thug departments for free.

Yet giving back outdated, taxpayer funded, research and development projects to the general public is beyond them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Doing something they, nor anyone should have the ability todo PERIOD, and now, oh no, dont stop doing it, rather, spread their more obselete tools of curruption to coorporations, in hopes of wide adoption, to condition folks to accept willingly/unwillingly these tools of power hungery, megnomaniacs, control freaks wet dream………on the upside, FOR THEM, also getting folks accustomed to the fact that its normal that any technology that information can be garnered, is expected to have backdoor access for the megnomaaniac thats on the throne currently…………no worries, once the unluckiest generation, gets the most mega corrupterest, evilist leader, rest assured, no matter what action said figure does, it can only get better, right…….maybe the second most mega maniac evilist “leader”………glad to see we’re all making it easier for them

Anonymous Coward says:

While they’re at it, maybe the US federal government should copyright and trademark most everything it owns and license them to the highest bidder. Claiming IP rights on all government property would also force the closure of sites like Wikileaks, since distributing secret government documents would then be copyright infringement. And sites like Techdirt could no longer post FOIAs, since they’d be copyrighted also.

Anonymous Coward says:

Yeah you know you can judge the health economy by no of patents,
so in a few years the usa will be the biggest economy in the world.
The nsa seems to go out of its way to find ways to annoy
ordinary citizens.taxpayers,
will companys with nsa patents start taking court case,s other private companys,

THE military,nsa , industrial complex in the usa is just
out of control.
AND Its effecting american companys trying to sell products abroad.

Stewby says:

“Another deals with creating cryptographic key escrow accounts for “third parties” to access encrypted files.”
Is the NSA hoping to license the technology necessary to allow searches of encrypted phones that Congress will force on Apple after the iPhone encryption announcement? That would be the ultimate in crony-police state capitalism. It would explain the ridiculous fear-mongering about Apple’s announcement if it makes mass snooping profitable for the government. Violating the rights of the people and forcing them to pay for the pleasure of having their privacy undermined sounds exactly like something they would try to pull.

Anonymous Coward says:

This makes me worry about something else:

Can a company rent one of these patents and bully an open-sourced version of the same implementation? Or even one that’s similar enough? ECC Is one example, can someone get license to that patent and start suing everyone who uses ECC? Technically, yes, the NSA had the patent. But it’s been in common use since forever.

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