The Complex

The NSA's Patents, in One Searchable Database

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.)

Photo via Getty Images News

The Complex

American Jihadists in Syria Could Bring Fight Home, U.S. Official Warns

ASPEN, Colo. — The top U.S. counterterrorism official said that the brutal Syrian civil war poses an increasing threat to the American homeland after a recent spike in the number of foreign fighters engaging in the conflict, gaining battlefield experience they could potentially use against the United States and Europe.

Matthew Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told an audience at the Aspen Security Forum that the ranks of foreigners taking part in the war against Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad now number at least 12,000, up from 7,000 a few months ago, including at least 1,000 Europeans and at least 100 Americans. Olsen said those estimates likely understate the actual numbers.

"The numbers are growing as the conflict there continues," said Olsen, who has run the counterterrorism center for three years and is slated to step down later this year. "It remains a magnet for extremists around the world."

Former FBI Director Robert Mueller, speaking on the same panel, said the intensifying conflict in the Gaza Strip threatened to further "fuel" the ranks of foreign fighters inside Syria. "It may contribute to the number of individuals who feel that they want to become part of the fight, but not necessarily in Gaza," Mueller said.

Neither conflict shows any signs of slowing. Last week included the bloodiest 48-hour period to date in the three-year-old Syrian civil war, with an NGO monitoring the conflict estimating that more than 700 Syrians were killed on Thursday and Friday. More than 170,000 people have died in the conflict since it began in March 2011. Elsewhere in the region, violence flared in the West Bank Friday for the first time since the conflict between Israel and Hamas began in Gaza on July 8. At least five people were killed, pushing the Palestinian death toll to more 800. Israel has lost 35 people, including 33 soldiers.

For the moment, Syria poses the far greater threat to the United States. The Western fighters there on European and American passports could return home to carry out strikes far more easily than other militants could. Olsen said some of those 100 Americans have already come back to the United States, though he emphasized that the FBI is monitoring and tracking many of them.

The counterterrorism chief said that the U.S. intelligence community's persistent difficulty in collecting detailed information about the fighting in Syria made it hard to trace the American and European militants once they made it to the battlefield.

Those challenges continue when the fighters return home. Olsen said it was difficult to identify and track those militants because they included both Syrians living in the United States and fighters from other ethnicities and nationalities. He said the Islamic State, which is leading the fighting in Syria, runs sophisticated English-language websites designed to help radicalize even larger numbers of Westerners and potentially convince them to join the battle.

Olsen said that once there, the militants would find a growing swath of territory inside both Syria and Iraq that is rapidly turning into a safe haven for militants interested in launching attacks both there and elsewhere in the world. He said there were senior al Qaeda leaders in Syria training foreign fighters and taking advantage of their ability to plan attacks elsewhere with little interference.

Syria, Olsen said, was providing safe havens that were starting "to be reminiscent of what we faced before 9/11 in Afghanistan."

Guillaume Briquet/AFP/Getty Images