Privacy: Technology

A Modest Proposal for NSA

By Benjamin Wittes
Tuesday, March 18, 2014, 11:29 AM

I had an idea the other day---a way for NSA to serve the national interest, do good for humanity, and improve its public image all at once. Drum roll, please! NSA should get into the business of publishing trade secrets stolen from companies in countries that conduct active industrial espionage against U.S. companies.

Before you dismiss this as totally nuts, let me spell it out, because it's actually a thing of beauty.

The U.S. position about industrial espionage is that we don't do it to advantage our own companies. The caveat leaves, of course, a gaping hole, actually more than one gaping hole. We do spy on foreign companies, just for foreign intelligence---not economic competitiveness---reasons. This difference is highly salient to U.S. policymakers, as it allows them to wax outraged about Chinese intellectual property theft from U.S. companies, but it doesn't inhibit the kind of industrial espionage that actually serves U.S. interests. The trouble is that there's no particular reason for a country with different strategic interests than the U.S.---say, a giant manufacturing economy with no overseas military commitments which is looking to get into higher-end manufacturing---to sign on to the underlying values that drive this supposed principle. So our respect for intellectual property as somehow outside of the realm of legitimate espionage has little claim on the Chinese or the French. And all the whining in the world about their behavior will not change the fact that their strategic interests and ours are different here, and we both have intelligence doctrines and practices that reflect our interests.

So the question is how we could alter U.S. intelligence doctrine so as to give countries that steal our intellectual property some disincentive to do so. I propose the following: the U.S. should publicly designate those countries that actively target U.S. companies for intellectual property theft, and it should adopt a policy of stealing IP from those countries and publishing it publicly for general use. 

I would put it all on a website, say http://www.tradesecretswestole.gov.

This approach would significantly raise the costs of systematic IP theft---either by taking valuable IP from countries that produce it (like France) or by stunting the development of higher-end economic activity in countries (like China) that desperately want to develop more innovative sectors. It would also solve one problem that U.S. officials say inhibits U.S. retaliation against Chinese companies for their government's espionage against U.S. firms: the problem of whom to give the secrets to. Right now, the inhibition about playing favorites among U.S. companies functions as a windfall for the IP-thieves. Giving the stolen material away to everyone---on an equal and public basis---would not advantage any U.S. company at the expense of any other, or even advantage U.S. companies in general at the expense of their foreign competitors. It would merely disadvantage companies from countries that refuse to play by the rules we want to see as international norms. And it would do so by adding information of value to the public domain.