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Former NSA chief’s plan to patent anti-hacker technology raises questions of ethics

WASHINGTON — A 5-month-old company in Washington has developed what it calls ground-breaking technology to thwart cyberattacks before they’ve been identified — a significant advancement over current systems, which react to known threats.

Yet, the effort itself is under a more conventional attack. The founder of the company, Keith Alexander, had led the National Security Agency until March, and his plan to patent the technology is drawing criticism from people who say he’s profiting from work he did for the government.

Alexander, who is offering cybersecurity services to a group of companies for hundreds of thousands of dollars a month, says he’s done nothing improper. The technology he’s developing doesn’t need to be submitted to the NSA for prior review because it’s distinct from what the agency is working on, he said.

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‘‘When the patents become visible to everybody, they will see the solution is a game changer and hugely different from what the NSA is looking at,’’ said Alexander, a retired four-star general who also headed the US Cyber Command while running the NSA.

Alexander’s company, IronNet Cybersecurity, is forming as a wave of cyberattacks has focused attention on computer security. JPMorgan Chase & Co. is investigating attacks that may have been aided by the Russian government, according to two people familiar with the probe. Home Depot says hackers attacked its computer systems and the company is investigating whether consumer data was stolen.

There was something ‘‘really fishy’’ about Alexander’s dash into the private sector, said Matthew Aid, author of books on the NSA.

‘‘As head of Cyber Command he had to protect US government networks,’’ Aid said. ‘‘He must have appreciated the immense profit potential in doing this work in the private sector.’’

Bloomberg News