Home / Robert Farley / IP and Military Diffusion

IP and Military Diffusion


In this week’s Diplomat column I return to a topic of interest, intellectual property and military diffusion:

  1. The nature of intellectual property theft in the military sphere will change. Rather than purchasing (or otherwise appropriating) entire systems and then reverse engineering, future theft will likely involve cyber-attacks on states, companies, and even the law firms that protect patents.
  2. While states such as India, China, and Russia have had strong incentives to defect from intellectual property compliance in the past, their status as producers and exporters will increasingly make them IP defenders, in general. In specific instances, however, they will continue to pursue the appropriation of critical foreign technologies, often through illicit means.
  3. There is potential for cooperation between the major arms producers on an international IP compliance regime, which would set guidelines or “rules of the road” for export. However, continuing political and strategic disagreement between these producers will limit the overall impact of such a regime.

I’ll be coming back to this issue, particularly on questions of how intellectual property law will affect patterns of military technology diffusion.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Linkedin
  • Pinterest
  • Murc

    Rather than purchasing (or otherwise appropriating) entire systems and then reverse engineering, future theft will likely involve cyber-attacks on states, companies, and even the law firms that protect patents.

    Uh. Why?

    Isn’t this a cost-benefit thing? It would cost a lot of money and be very, very risky to try and break into Raytheon’s servers and score the plans for their proprietary technology, and once you have you then have to reverse-engineer it anyway unless you plan to just say ‘Yeah? Well, sucks to be you’ when an angry Ambassador confronts you about such blatant theft once you put the hardware into production.

    This assumed that Raytheon has left sensitive plans on networked servers, which I can’t imagine they have. They means you have to also penetrate their physical security.

    I can’t imagine this is less expensive than acquiring physical hardware to examine, via fair means or foul. It also seems outright riskier.

    And why law firms? Do law firms have to have a copy of the plans of the device whose patent they’re dealing with? If so, I would demand, before turning them over to said law firm, that such plans never, EVER be digitized and kept in a physically secure location, thus requiring a high-profile break-in for someone to get their hands on them.

    • wengler

      Companies, even large corporations, haven’t proven in the past that they have the most stellar security plans regarding safekeeping their digital secrets from attack.

      I don’t think there will be some sort of international framework regarding these secrets though, rather states will have to mandate the security regimes that their vendors must follow.

    • Two points:

      1. While entire systems will sometimes fall into the hands of a foreign state (tomahawks landing in Pakistan and being delivered to china) it’s highly unlikely that rus/china/India will ever acquire a physical copy of some crucial, advanced tech, especially on the naval and aviation side. Getting and copying bits of a F-117 is the exception, not the rule; gonna be even harder to track down physical copies of systems that go into f-35, Virginia class sub, etc. Cyber is the only way to go unless you want to wait decades to get lucky.

      2. “Authorities” (and it’s fair to keep that in quotes) on the subject tell me that law firms are often the weak link in IP theft; even if they don’t have complete plans, etc. they can often be plumbed for useful information that leads to more effective attacks. But that’s just what I’m told.

      • Murc


        I do networking, so this sort of thing is within my wheelhouse a little bit, and there’s been a real push within the past couple years towards… there isn’t really a term for it yet. I call it stone age security; security through low technology.

        Computers that aren’t networked can’t really be hacked outside of a Stephenson novel. Hard copy in a locked filing cabinet in a secure room is remarkably safe; you’d be amazed how cheap physical security can be compared to securing computer assets.

        This is all stuff I’ve seen in really, really low-end environments. I’m talking security solutions that have deployed at companies where their biggest secret is concealing the size of executive bonuses from the drones in the cubes. So I sort of figured that at the higher end, companies and governments would be even more paranoid and secure about things.

        • tonycpsu

          In addition to echoing what wengler and Farley have said, I take issue with your notion that, having the plans for the tech, you’d have to “reverse-engineer it anyway” so you don’t piss off the other nation. First, if you’re engaging in cyber-espionage against another nation’s defense contractors, you probably aren’t all that worried about getting caught with your hands in the cookie jar when you deploy the tech. Second, you could achieve the same effect of obtaining a physical copy and reverse-engineering it by simply making small changes to the tech to make it look reverse-engineered instead of a perfect copy of the stolen designs. This is easy to detect in an undergrad writing or computer science class where 30 teenagers are copying the same assignment, but when it’s just one nation with tech that is a lot like yours, they have some plausible deniability.

          In any event, we probably assume China’s stealing our shit even when they aren’t, so if they’re going to get blamed either way, why wouldn’t they at least get some benefit out of it?

          But yeah, the idea that contractors aren’t leaving shit on networked servers is a real howler. The problem with just having one hard copy in a SCIF is that it’s a lot harder to share with your subcontractors, display to the government sponsors, etc. Obviously you want to take as much care as you can, but at some point it becomes a bottom line thing for both the contractor and the sponsor — they’ll pay double or triple what the private sector will for better security, but twenty-fold? Probably not.

  • You didn’t mention that Russia is now a member of the WTO. The TRIPS provisions should protect defence equipment, or am I missing something? Shouldn’t the WTO regime provide rules of the road when it comes to weapons exports?

  • wengler

    China, India and Russia are all in very different positions regarding this issue though. Russia has been an exporter of military technology for a very long time. China is developing a capacity for domestic manufacture of high military technology but it’s unknown if they plan to export. India imports military technology.

    If anything India and China have the biggest upside to defecting from any international IP framework. They are also the least likely to be heavily sanctioned due to the dependency of western economies on cheap exports from these two countries.

    It still doesn’t probably matter much though, as neither are even close to having the sort of arms export market as the US, Russia, and western Europe. The most obvious IP claims will likely come from small arms manufacturers due to the ease at which one can get those weapons and examine them for infringement.

  • shah8

    When I think unwanted, *material*, technological transfers, I think of defecting pilots or other managers of sophisticated equipment. People stealing tea or rubber or some other specifically hybridized crop, or foreign mad scientist bearing plans for military equipment, or simply kidnapping the need technological folks, like the smiths of the Iron Age, or the electricians pressed into drug trafficking service. have been far more substantial in technological diffusion and history. The end of the article about the reliability of the stolen tech reflects that.

    I think this is primarily of interest as a matter of legalities, economics, and political science, rather than military, per se. Not that the article portrays it as anything different, of course. I do think more needs to be said about technological diffusion wrt to keeping clients–such as selling anti-air systems like what Russia sells to clients like Syria, or Patriot/Iron Dome missile defense systems.

It is main inner container footer text