Secret NSA Patents

From The New Scientist:

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.

EDITED TO ADD: This story is wrong.

Posted on November 1, 2005 at 7:46 AM16 Comments


Post a comment November 1, 2005 9:45 AM


Does the NSA just hire Math gods or what?

P.S. Thanks, Bruce, for your most informative and interesting blog.

Sylvain Galineau November 1, 2005 9:51 AM

This is not so informative in terms of evaluating the trends. If the NSA filed four times more patents this year than last, nine would mean a much smaller percentage are getting blocked.

Absolute numbers without context don’t tell much.

B November 1, 2005 12:17 PM

I have to wonder if this type of thing will motivate people to to publish/sell their ideas before applying for patents if they fear that they may be censored by the government…

Ari Heikkinen November 1, 2005 12:47 PM

Too bad the good old Soviet Union is no more, which leaves those terrorists with bombs (but then again, everyone’s a potential terrorist so there’s still plenty of enemies to watch).

Jarrod November 1, 2005 1:24 PM

“Does the NSA just hire Math gods or what?”

No, they hire a wide variety of professions. Mathematicians are popular, of course, but physicists, chemists, electrical and computer engineers, and even musicians (who can sometimes pick out background patterns more easily than others by virtue of their training) are common hires as well.

Boyd November 1, 2005 1:32 PM

Let’s not forget the linguists that work there, either (not that I used to work there as a Navy linguist many moons ago).

They also have their normal share of employees with no apparent talent other than finding a way to get from the start of their shift to the end without performing any discernible work, every day, day after day.

I mean, besides the linguists. 😉

Stiennon November 1, 2005 2:23 PM

My brother once had a patent application that was initially held up in this way. He envisioned a field of small explosives that would be ignited in such a way that their small shock waves would converge on a specific point, creating a large shock wave. Perfect for an insurgency that wants to knock aircraft down. Just needs radar, a computer, TNT, and some software.

They eventually let it through. I wonder if they figured it would not work?


Mithrandir November 1, 2005 4:29 PM


The NSA is doing more patentable research: the probability of any given patent being blocked has not increased, but more patents -> more blockage.

The NSA is opening up: the internal secrecy threshold has decreased, so they are trying to publish things they would not have published in years past.

The DOD is clamping down: the DOD is stopping the NSA from publishing things that they would have let slide in years past.

Hard to know which of these is the case without more info. Given the political climate, I suspect the third though.

Paul O November 1, 2005 9:26 PM

If a patent application is blocked in such a manner as described, what happens if a third party (either within the US, or, since the USPTO accepts global submissions, from another country) submits a similar claim?

Can the USPTO reject an application based on a conflict with an unpublished patent? Or would the third party then receive royalties for a US Government-owned invention?

Seems to me it might be better to grant the patent but mark it Secret instead of Public. And, of course, any third party submissions could also be classified as “Secret” (which could then impose additional security measures on that third party).

Ya'akov November 2, 2005 1:47 AM

Patents are for the rich.

For an individual or small business, suing someone for violating your rights can cost so much that you are financially ruined.

Alternatively, for a rich company, suing someone for supposedly violating the company’s rights, can ruin the person being sued – simply becaus ethey cannot afford the cost of opposing the litigation.

oW/VAge November 2, 2005 6:38 AM

One wonders if the NSA disguises the amount of breakthrough research that it does just by sending out a random number of patents every year, most of which range between somebody’s shopping list and very obscure nonsense.
I mean how often do significant advancements in either cryptography or signal analysis really happen? Not often I suspect. The low-hanging fruit in this area has already been picked.

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