The National Security Agency has access to the world's most incredibly sophisticated spy technology. But did you know that the NSA sometimes patents its own creations?
The NSA has been granted patents for everything from advanced paper shredders to specific methods of location tracking on the internet. There's even a super-secure manhole designed to protect telecom equipment in underground vaults.
Today Antonio Regalado over at MIT Technology Review tweeted a couple of NSA patents, which inspired us to take a look at precisely what the super-secret spy agency has in their intellectual property portfolio.
In 2009 the NSA was granted a patent for a sophisticated and secure manhole. Why would the spy agency care about developing such a thing? Because, as they explain in the patent filing, telecommunications equipment is increasingly being housed in underground vaults. They've got to make sure all those top secret spy facilities that are sucking up the world's data have the most secure entrances available. The world's most secretive agency certainly doesn't want any old manhole that a common ninja turtle could crack.
The NSA destroys a hell of a lot of documents. That just comes with the territory for any spy agency. But if you thought the NSA used off-the-shelf shredders from OfficeMax, think again.
In 2004 the NSA was granted a patent for a "shredder residue dispersion system." The system divvies up different parts of the same shredded document into multiple disposal bins to ensure that it can't be pieced back together. Anybody who saw the 2012 film Argo will remember the scenes where shredded documents are reassembled by a bunch of children tasked with that incredibly mundane project. The patent even specifies that the resulting waste should be ultimately disposed of at different times and at different locations.
In 2005 the NSA was granted a patent for discovering someone's physical location via the internet. This particular system narrows down a user's location by measuring the communication lag time between two addresses. Back in 2005, the agency refused to comment to CNET about the patent. But thanks to the Snowden docs, we know this is just one tool in their massive toolbox for geolocating.
Last year the NSA was granted a patent for a USB port protector. The device physically locks potential snoopers out of a USB-compatible device by clogging the port. If any unauthorized user tried to remove the device from the port, it would break off inside, still rendering the port useless for would-be spies.
In 2010 the NSA applied for a patent for a tamper-evident bag, the top of which is illustrated above. The bag includes a lock, key and multiple points to determine if your items have been messed with. If only the bad guys in Trading Places had known such technology was possible.
Much like the tamper-evident bag, the tamper-indicating tube is supposed to make transporting physical documents and electronics much more secure. Patented by the NSA in 2009, this device ensures that you know if someone's been tampering with your tub-transported junk.
It also includes one of the best business-speak descriptions I've seen in any patent:
In today's fast paced world of business, documents are often transported from one location to another and it is necessary to protect against loss, theft, and tampering.
The NSA is awash in surveillance data. So much so, that automating the task of sorting through it is an absolute necessity. In 2005 the NSA filed for a patent for a system that would help them do that. By narrowing down the content of a message to its nouns, the system is supposed to more easily identify what the topic of the message might be. The message is systematically broken down, trying to distinguish between variables like spelling errors and singular vs. plural versions of a noun. Then the system presumably spits out the message into a particular topics folder for assessment by human eyes later. For instance, based on its nouns, this blog post would probably be filed under "manhole freedom haters."
Images: Top gif of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper by Michael Hession; Patent illustrations from Google Patents