Saturday, December 03, 2005

Burritos are Better Protected than Military Secrets

Technological innovation due to military wants and the fat contracts that support otherwise uneconomical research may receive well deserved criticism, but there are numerous, often unrealized benefits that the public enjoys due to declassification and spin-off technologies-even right here in Kentucky. Innovations such as the internet (I thought Al Gore invented this?) and the global positioning system (GPS) were once closely guarded military secrets that were later integrated into the tech markets. WD-40 became and still is a wildly successful lubricant after it was invented for NASA applications. Modern conveniences related to the internet are taken for granted today, and companies such as OnStar and the slew of GPS receiving devices such as electronic driving maps are products of declassification. Although there usually is a considerable time lag between military/contractor invention and potential public use, these technologies would probably have taken longer to achieve if the research was done outside of government/DOD initiatives. Who else could have supported the 30+ satellites used for GPS today back in the mid-1980’s during its creation?

The effects of defense supported innovations via contractors being released for public use also raises internal security concerns. If the same technology that the military uses is available on the market, then just about anybody could obtain the otherwise disclosed materials with the intention of sabotage. Sure, sharing WD-40 with the world may not be a direct security risk today, but what about more sophisticated innovations?

One instance that illustrates this concern and spurred publicity occurred right here in Kentucky. In the late 1990’s, Lexington based contractor Mas-Hamilton produced locks for defense purposes (Locks). These same locks, used for doors and safes, were sold to the Pentagon, other defense contractors, and to Taco Bells (based in Louisville) across the nation. When a study revealed that a majority of the locks in the Pentagon were vulnerable to high-tech thieves using computer-based devices, the DOD requested updating their locks with a newer, electronic lock produced by Mas-Hamilton…the same locks that Taco Bell uses to protect its burritos. Along with this request came the demand that other defense contractors update their locks. However, many refused citing that if the locks could be available to fast-food workers, then the security tech is just as vulnerable as the old locks. In response, Kentucky Senators McConnell and Bunning sought to increase defense funding to retrofit all locks used to secure military information, including contractors (Bunning). As discussed in class, this move may have been more about the protection of local, defense-related jobs than security interests as Mas-Hamilton publicly expressed the intention of lay-offs if sales didn’t increase.

Nevertheless, the cycle of political protection of local defense contractors to force military spending is a reality-even here in Lexington. However, with the average U.S. defense contractor CEO salary rising 79% in just one year (2002), there is a clear concern that fat contracts for military procurement and innovation be revisited (CEO). Is there something wrong if defense CEO’s make 45% more than other U.S. company CEO’s? Yet when it comes to the public benefits produced with spin off applications after declassification, perhaps these fat contracts are well worth the money spent and the burritos’ saved.

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