According to one rare measure—call it the Aftergood index—the reputed security value of inventions patented in the United States is on the rise.
Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C., tracks the number of U.S. patents classified as secret by the government each year and sequestered from public view. In fiscal year 2011, he reports in his blog, the number of patents put under wraps was 143, or 66% more than last year.
Most of these inventions, Aftergood believes, are likely improvements in technologies used in weapons systems; requests for classification come mainly from the U.S. military services and appear to be granted readily. Many such patents arise from work done by military contractors. But not all. This year, 11 of the 143 secret inventions are so-called "John Doe" patents that apparently had no government connection. For these inventors the classification may have come as a surprise. But it's hard to tell, since everything about the inventions is masked.
There's no way to judge whether the cloak of secrecy is being used wisely or not, Aftergood says. As far as he can determine, inventors are not objecting to secrecy orders, although some have demanded and received compensation for claimed losses resulting from past secrecy orders. But for those hoping to sell to the military, a secrecy order might serve as a badge of honor.
Is the rise in secrecy orders something to be concerned about? Not necessarily, Aftergood says, since "you don't want to be broadcasting" new military technology to the world. But he adds, "I would like to see an independent review to give confidence that this authority is being wisely exercised."