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Patents vs. Secrecy 219

giampy writes "New Scientist is reporting that the NSA appears to be having its patent applications increasingly blocked by the Pentagon. From the article: '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.'"
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Patents vs. Secrecy

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  • by Xabraxas ( 654195 ) on Thursday October 27, 2005 @09:17PM (#13893942) make the judgement that the government is becoming more secretive. The article states that in each of the three years prior the Pentagon has blocked 4, 5, and 9 patents submitted by the NSA. Three years of evidence is hardly enough to go by. There may be a perfectly good reason as to why more patents were blocked this year. With such a small number of patents denied it is possible that the NSA applied for more patents and the percentage of patents blocked is actually less than previous years. It is also possible that The NSA developed more inventions this year that could be deemed sensitive information. I would like to know how many patents submitted by the NSA have been blocked by the pentagon in the past 50-60 years and what percentage of patent applications have been blocked each year. That information would be much more useful. Move on, nothing to see here.
  • I dunno... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by susano_otter ( 123650 ) on Thursday October 27, 2005 @09:19PM (#13893954) Homepage
    Seems to me more like an indication of how much secure cryptography has gained value as a tool of war.

    I suspect that the Pentagon is more concerned with preserving an edge in weapons technology, than with secrecy-as-secrecy.

    The secrecy thing is just a side effect of wanting the edge.
  • Secrecy (Score:4, Insightful)

    by mister_llah ( 891540 ) on Thursday October 27, 2005 @09:20PM (#13893962) Homepage Journal
    Honestly, the fact we know there ARE secrets is progress from the Cold War, in my opinion.


    Having done a smidge of work for the government, I'm happier with secrets "just in case" than creating holes that might not have to have been made.

    Does this mean that what is being kept secret *needs* to be? Not always... but it is better safe than sorry.

    [obviously there are extremes, making an office supply order confidential for example, but patents are understandable]
  • by GabrielF ( 636907 ) <> on Thursday October 27, 2005 @09:20PM (#13893963)
    The brief description of this article on slashdot as well as the article itself are a bit alarmist. The article does say that the number of secrecy orders on NSA patents has increased (nine in '05, as opposed to five in '04 and none in the previous three years), but the number of secrecy orders on private inventors has been cut nearly in half, from 61 to 32. This indicates that in some ways the USPTO is being less secretive, not more. It is possible that the small change in NSA patents is due to a different bureaucratic mechanism for screening patents, perhaps the NSA itself has gotten less stringent so the USPTO and the Pentagon have had to become more sensitive in order to compromise, and it is even possible that the change is statistically meaningless due to the small sample size, but it is harder to account for the larger drop (numerically) in the secrecy of the patents of private inventors.
  • by Elrond, Duke of URL ( 2657 ) <> on Thursday October 27, 2005 @09:26PM (#13893998) Homepage

    Honestly now...

    Coca-cola is a private company. The government is by definition a public body that we, ideally, control. If Coke invents some new thing and decides to keep it a secret, you can tell them how you feel by not buying any Coke. You have no choice with the government.

    They take your taxes, period. I think it is quite reasonable to insist that what the government does/creates with our money be made, if at all possible, public. That's how government is supposed to work.

  • Re:Geritol. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Daniel Dvorkin ( 106857 ) * on Thursday October 27, 2005 @09:41PM (#13894048) Homepage Journal
    I suspect it's the sign of a culture clash as much as anything. Below the top level of bureaucracy, the NSA employs a lot of very smart people -- and not just smart, but creative and curious people as well, many of them mathematicians and computer scientists engaged in pure research. (One of my math professors, an absolutely brilliant guy and a great teacher, was hired away by them to work on Some Project for Some Amount Of Money That Was Unspecified, But Was Much More Than He Was Making Teaching College. I was happy for him, but sad that I wouldn't be able to take any more classes from him.) Even if they work for "No Such Agency," they're basically long-haired hippies who want to share their work with, like, the human race, man. And of course the Pentagon is ... well, it's the Pentagon. No hippies allowed. It's like the standard IT-guys-vs.-suits conflict that's played out in the corporate world all the time, but with much higher stakes.

    To boil it down to /. terms: the Pentagon loves Microsoft, the NSA released its own Linux distro. You figure it out.
  • Re:Why? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Daniel Dvorkin ( 106857 ) * on Thursday October 27, 2005 @09:52PM (#13894090) Homepage Journal
    If you've never been in a position handling classified information, it may be hard to see security holes.

    I have "been in a position handling classified information" -- some of it very classified indeed -- and here's why I think you're wrong:

    1) Classification costs insane amounts of money; not just the classification process and the protections classified material requires, but in the case of technology, the potential profit to be realized by releasing the technology for civilian use. A good example of this is what the British government did to their nascent computer industry after WW2. At the end of the war, they had the best computer technology and computer scientists in the world, bar none. No one else, including the US, was even in the running. So, of course, in classic late-stage empire style, they classified everything, destroyed the actual machines, hounded people out of that line of work (and at least one of them to death) ... and gave away the entire computer industry in the process. The world could have been at least a decade ahead in computer technology, and the UK far richer, if not for this display of paranoia.

    2) Classifying everything is equivalent to classifying nothing. People who work with classified information which they know is bullshit tend to get contemptuous of the rules (I've seen classified documents just sitting around in public areas, no one watching them, with people milling by!) So it increases the chances of genuinely important information getting leaked.

    3) We, the people of the United States, pay for that work with our tax dollars. I don't think anyone will argue that everything the government comes up with should be for sale at Radio Shack -- but the government must have an overriding interest in keeping potentially useful technology (and everything else, for that matter) secret from the people who paid for it, and whose interests it is supposed to serve. And no, "this might be useful to someone somewhere sometime who wants to do something bad, better safe than sorry" just doesn't cut it.
  • by rindeee ( 530084 ) on Thursday October 27, 2005 @10:01PM (#13894117)
    I don't get the tone of this headline, that if the Fed has a secret, it must be a bad thing. How would you propose the Gov't protect the country in the absence of secrecy. Full disclosure? A grand idea that has never worked (of course in a sense secrecy hasn't worked either, as all societies in the past have fallen). The fact of the matter is that secrets are not only normal, they are a requirement for survival. We all practice a level of secrecy even in our lives; at work, in relationships, etc. and we use them to protect ourselves (psychologically and emotionally mostly I'd presume). Companies exercise extreme measures to protect trade secrets. Pitchers and catchers use "secret" codes to communicate so as not to divulge their plans to the batter. The NSA is not a den of evildoers. They're a good bunch of folks, no different than you and I save for the fact that they're willing to work for a lot less money because they feel it's for the greater good. I'd venture to guess that greater than 50% of NSA employees are /.'ers, albeit not the most vocal of the bunch. ;) The military/intel communities have abused power at times, but that is not the norm. Blah blah blah...I'll shut up now, I'm boring even my self.
  • Re:Why? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by geomon ( 78680 ) on Thursday October 27, 2005 @10:09PM (#13894139) Homepage Journal
    okay, how about better safe then my million dollar ass and 450 million dollar plane lost. Classification is expensive. Loosing people and hardware is very expensive. Loosing a war is terminal.

    Yes, but in an over-classified world, how would you know that we were losing the war?

    Secret governments fail due to internal decay. The only cure for that disease is the sunshine of open government.

    Only in the most extreme cases should information be classified. Once you start creating state secrets "just in case" it is impossible to stop.
  • by cgenman ( 325138 ) on Thursday October 27, 2005 @10:12PM (#13894148) Homepage
    That's the part that doesn't make any sense. It's paid for by taxpayer dollars (which includes the better-behaved of companies out there), so why would the NSA try to patent them? As a source of funding? As leverage in cross-licensing agreements?

    Why does the government do this?

  • by Kadin2048 ( 468275 ) <> on Thursday October 27, 2005 @10:14PM (#13894159) Homepage Journal
    Thanks for that link, there's some pretty cool stuff on there.

    I went to the site and looked up a few of them (in particular "rocess of preventing visual access to a semiconductor device by applying an opaque ceramic coating to integrated circuit devices," No. 5,258,334) and the assignee is listed as "The U.S. Government as represented by the Director, National Security."

    I wonder if this means that the patented idea is essentially public domain? Other creative works which are products of the Government are automatically public domain in terms of copyright, so is the right to use an idea as well? Or if you want to use one, do you have to go to the NSD and ask for permission / licensing? And if the latter, what do they charge, and who gets the money?

    I suspect, judging just by the problems and obvious conflicts-of-interest that you'd get if licensing was required, that they are free to use, in which case having the NSA patent something is much like having one of the Linux associations trademark something; they're never going to actually profit from it, but it potentially prevents someone else from doing so unfairly. And I suspect it also looks really good on the NSA's researchers' resumes and improves morale.
  • by ( 745183 ) on Thursday October 27, 2005 @10:44PM (#13894275) Homepage
    ...149 pages completedly blacked out...

    Don't worry, this is self-limiting. After enough of its material becomes non-disseminable, the NSA's ability to innovate will quickly dry up...

  • by YouHaveSnail ( 202852 ) on Thursday October 27, 2005 @10:50PM (#13894303)
    For me, the big surprise here is that the NSA, an agency of the federal government, can apply for a patent in the first place. How does that work, exactly, when the NSA actually gets a patent? Since it's funded by tax dollars, can anyone use the invention? Do we need to apply for a license to use the invention? Is there a licensing fee? If so, where does that money go? Government agencies are neither people nor corporations, so do they have some sort of legal status that allows them to own things like patents? Could the FDA or the NIH start patenting drugs? Could the House of Representatives patent some novel method of voting and prevent the Senate from using it?

    Perhaps they're trying to patent ideas in order to make them public and prevent anyone else from obtaining a patent on the same idea, and we're all free to use the idea. But then why not just publish the idea and make sure that the USPTO is aware of it?
  • Re:Why? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by laughingcoyote ( 762272 ) <barghesthowl AT excite DOT com> on Thursday October 27, 2005 @11:18PM (#13894406) Journal

    In my experience, those with broad powers to keep secrets will eventually misuse such power in order to cover up wrongdoing. The temptation is simply too great-you screwed up, badly, you can either:
    A: Admit it, or
    B: Keep it secret.
    While there are exceptions, most will choose to keep it secret. That's an unfortunate reality but a true one.

    And in fact, it's been found that classification has quite often been used unnecessarily or even maliciously. It has also been found that information is kept classified far longer then it need be (i.e., it held strategic value 50 years ago, and needed to be classified, it lost its strategic value 40 years ago and could've safely been declassified, but it stayed classified until 2 years ago because it would've embarrassed someone. Coincidentally, of course, that person died 2 years ago.)

    A democratic government (or ANY government which claims to serve, rather than rule, the people it represents) must by definition be open. If we cannot get a complete picture of what any given leader or organization is up to, then we cannot make an informed choice as to whether to re-elect that leader. If we do not know a problem exists, we cannot protest it to our Congressmen/Senators. If the press are routinely denied access to critical information on potential wrongdoing, their "freedom of the press" becomes a farce.

    We are indeed "better safe then sorry"-and we are safest when we can keep a close, critical eye on our government. Not when they're allowed to keep anything secret they wish with no oversight and no consequences for misuse of that authority.

  • Re:Secrecy (Score:5, Insightful)

    by SillyNickName4me ( 760022 ) <> on Thursday October 27, 2005 @11:20PM (#13894417) Homepage
    Does this mean that what is being kept secret *needs* to be? Not always... but it is better safe than sorry.

    The USA has a supposedly democratically elected government.

    Virtually everything that government tries to keep secret somewhat undermines the ability of the people of the USA to judge what their government is doing with their money, and hence undermines their ability to make a good choice on whom to vote for next time.

    So, keeping secrets undermines democracy, which to me means that while you need them in specific cases, it is a very good idea to limit that to situations where it is really really needed.

    The 'better be safe then sorry' should be applied to this in an entirely different way then you did, better be safe and not undermine the voters then be sorry that you lost democracy.

  • by kcbrown ( 7426 ) <> on Friday October 28, 2005 @12:05AM (#13894550)
    I thank God that there are still some idealists in the government who are trying to make the right decisions; it is they who help to counteract the creep of power and those it affects.

    Unfortunately, I believe their numbers are dwindling, as corporate sponsorship (what else can you call the necessity of corporate "campaign contributions") continues to become more necessary for one to be elected.

  • by isotope23 ( 210590 ) on Friday October 28, 2005 @01:23AM (#13894759) Homepage Journal
    From the article, it seems even private patents can be claimed under national security. I would assume with anything so claimed the inventor is basically screwed.

    So here is the hypothetical question, suppose I invented a new method to decrypt information VERY fast (i.e polynomial time). If I did not apply for a patent here, but either patented it in europe, or just published it, would that be illegal?

    As far as I can tell there are no requirements that you must try to patent an invention, nor any requirement that a u.s. inventor patent an invention in the US first.


  • by Myria ( 562655 ) on Friday October 28, 2005 @01:40AM (#13894812)
    I think that they can only classify things if the federal government pays for it. If I'm wrong, and you manage to factor big numbers quickly, I suggest you do three things: - Immediately get it on the Internet as fast as you can. Make sure Slashdot sees it, especially. Place a notice that patent rights are reserved. - Arrange to have it published somewhere, preferably by a lesser-known journal that would be less inclined to listen to the Feds. You have 1 year to do this under American law. If the Feds never know about it before you reveal it massively, there is little that they can do. If they arrest you, it would look terrible to the administration in power. It's all about the PR. Melissa
  • Re:Compensation? (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Lord Kano ( 13027 ) on Friday October 28, 2005 @03:24AM (#13895021) Homepage Journal
    Really, working for the military is a risky business for any private-sector operation, no matter how you slice it. Money to be made, sure, but you gotta be careful.

    Not just the military. Anyone with more power than you. At a job that I had a few years back, higher ups in management wanted us to provided an outline of what we did as a part of our duties. I pleaded with my co-workers to give them what they asked for, "An Outline", but they went ahead and provided step, by step instructions to do what we did. Three months later, our jobs were given to another division and we were all demoted. Same pay, but the jobs weren't as good.

    Fortunately I succeeded in planting a poison pill in the instructions. We left out a step. As a result, the people that got our jobs didn't know that they were missing a step so they went ahead and cost the company tens of thousands of dollars.

    The point I'm making is this. Your father was right to hold back to goodies. It was his only leverage to keep from getting screwed. If someone has proven themselves willing and able to screw you, the only recourse you have is to protect yourself via whatever means you must employ.

  • "Ought" vs "Is" (Score:5, Insightful)

    by CustomDesigned ( 250089 ) <> on Friday October 28, 2005 @04:40AM (#13895223) Homepage Journal
    The "people on /." (and know that you are not *supposed* to get patents on ideas. It is the fact that such patents are regularly granted despite such paragraphs as you quote that has us in an uproar. And we complain that it is *technically* (in the non-legal sense) "easy" to get a patent - not that it is "easy" in the sense of the expense or legal technicalities involved. So saying, "just patent your own inventions if you're so smart" is not a valid argument for ordinary people without $10000 to blow on every software invention (even the real inventions as opposed to obvious stuff).

    Notice that if I'm going to be investing $50000 in parts and equipment (say because I've just figured out to make a Farnsworth generator actually produce power), another $10000 for a patent makes a lot more sense. It is software patents that have such a ridiculous discrepancy between the cost of invention and the cost of a patent. That is why "people on /." (and are against *software* patents, not patents in general.

    It is also software patents for which the Patent Office seems to have the most trouble distinguishing real inventions from the trivial. But even if that problem (USPTO ignorance of software technology) is fixed, there is simply no need for patent protection of software, because there is no hard cost of invention. It "only" costs time to write and debug code - and that debugged and working code is already protected by copyright. Software patents are purely a tool of oppression.

  • by fishbowl ( 7759 ) on Friday October 28, 2005 @05:44AM (#13895348)

    "So here is the hypothetical question, suppose I invented a new method to decrypt information VERY fast (i.e polynomial time). If I did not apply for a patent here, but either patented it in europe, or just published it, would that be illegal?"

    Release the information anonymously, and enjoy being the catalyst that begins the post-crypto world.

    If you came up with such a discovery, would you *really* let any government have it?
  • by KingSkippus ( 799657 ) * on Friday October 28, 2005 @07:17AM (#13895525) Homepage Journal
    I see classifying everything more as a "cover your ass" type policy than some high level conspiracy against the US citizens.

    You may be right.

    ...But you may not. That's kind of the point. When everything is a secret whether there's a valid reason or not, none of us knows what kinds of motivations are at work behind the scenes.

    Even if I give the people in charge now the benefit of a doubt and pretend like all they're doing is covering their ass, it doesn't change the fact that now that the precedent is set and government secrecy is the rule, not the exception, there's nothing to stop someone who is truly evil from taking power and wreaking havoc the likes of which this planet has never seen.

    Imagine a modern-day Hitler. (No, I'm not comparing him to George Bush, I'm talking about a hypothetical person who's litierally—word used correctly—much more evil.) Does anyone remember that he was Time Magazine's Man of the Year [] of 1938? As he was working his way into power, people loved him, because he seemed like an average working-class guy who wanted to do right by the German people. They had no clue what future atrocities were to come. It's not too hard for me to imagine someone like that being elected in this country. Now imagine if this modern-day Hitler managed to get in charge of the one and only world superpower, and that once he started doing things like, well, Hitler did, there was no way to hold him accountable. No one knew because all of his actions were classified as national security secrets. Hey, wait, isn't that pretty much exactly what happened back then?

    Again, I'm not saying that that is what's going on right now, but who knows? Maybe it is. But even if it's not, if we allow a political environment in which it can happen, there's nothing to stop it from happening in 2008. Or 2012. Or 2016. Because it can, it's just a matter of time before it does. Such is the nature of absolute power.

    Is this what we really want?

    I'm sorry, but whether they're covering their asses or trying to take over the world doesn't change the fact that what they're doing is evil, and it literally—word used correctly—has the potential to destroy any semblance of freedom in this country and maybe even the whole world.

    And to the parent post, that was an excellent point about the government not letting us keep any secrets from them. I've never really thought about it before, but it's really a scary thought. Every intimate detail of my life is open to Uncle Sam, but when I ask stupid questions to try to make sure Uncle Sam's not evil, well, it's a totally different story.

    People are so wrapped up in how Uncle Sam will protect us from the terrorists that they forget to ask the question that's much more important: Who will protect us from Uncle Sam?

  • Re:Not really. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by WindBourne ( 631190 ) on Friday October 28, 2005 @08:03AM (#13895651) Journal
    Just like most everything else, all of this belongs to the admin AND congress. GWB had to get congressional permission to wage war on Iraq. IOW, he had to get support from republicans and democrats alike, and he got it. Had that not occured, we would not be fighting a 2 front war. If not, then the military would not be getting the dollars (translate to power) that it gets now. GWB can (and rightfully should) be blamed for starting a lot of American problems. But congress is a check/balance that should have stopped it. They did not, therefore they share in the blame.

    It is something that I will remember in about a year. Hopefully, so will most voters.
  • So What (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ( 213219 ) on Friday October 28, 2005 @09:04AM (#13895887) Journal
    People: You can argue all you want if a government agency can obtain a patent or why one branch can over-rule another branch on a security issue. On the face of it your arguments have logic and many of them seem well-reasoned.

    But we are dealing with the government, the U.S. government. While we (the citizens of the U.S.) have many rights (like the freedom of speech) we no longer have control of our government. It will do what it damned well wants to. It has been that way since WWII with only a couple of notable exceptions. The truth is they will spend what they need to in order to accomplish what they want. Their lawyers will obstruficate enough laws and outspend anyone who tries to get in their way ten to one, making it impossible for even the wealthiest people or corporations to be little more then a speed-bump on the agenda.

    I'm not anti-government. We need government and we need the laws that protect us. But face it, what we have created is something that lives and operates behind closed doors and establishes its own rules. Nothing, or nobody is big enough to change it. That hardly means don't try. As citizens we need to demand accountability because it is we who they represent. The article was good from that standpoint. It uses our freedom to challenge the government to explain itself. Unfortunately, we already know the answer will be a stoney wall of silence.

How many NASA managers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? "That's a known problem... don't worry about it."