-------- Original Message --------
Subject: 	Mathematicians push back against the NSA...
Date: 	Mon, 28 Apr 2014 09:57:51 -0700
From: 	Brian J. Fox <[log in to unmask]>
To: 	Herbert Fox Ph.D. <[log in to unmask]>

Maths spying: The quandary of working for the spooks - opinion - 23 
April 2014 - New Scientist 

/Intelligence agencies hire lots of mathematicians, but would-be 
employees must realise that their work is misused to snoop on everyone, 
says *Tom Leinster*/

FOR the past 10 months, a major international scandal has engulfed some 
of the world's largest employers of mathematicians. These organisations 
stand accused of law-breaking on an industrial scale 
<> and 
are now the object of widespread outrage. How has the mathematics 
community responded? Largely by ignoring it.

Those employers  the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the UK's 
Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ 
 have been systematically monitoring as much of our lives as they can, 
including our emails, texts, phone and Skype calls, web browsing, bank 
transactions and location data. They have tapped internet trunk cables, 
bugged charities 
<> andpolitical 
conducted economic espionage <>, 
hacked cloud servers 
<> and 
disrupted lawful activist groups, all under the banner of national 
security. The goal, to quote former NSA director Keith Alexander, is to 
"collect all the signals, all the time".

The standard justification for this mass surveillance is to avert 
terrorism. US officials repeatedly claimed that mass surveillance had 
thwarted 54 attacks. But the NSA eventually admitted it was more like 
one or two; its best example was an alleged $8500 donation to a 
terrorist group.

Some argue that the information gathered is "only metadata"  phone 
numbers and call durations rather than what was said, for example. This 
is not true. GCHQ has harvested webcam images, many sexual, of millions 
of people. In any case, it is wrong to believe that collecting metadata 
leaves privacy intact. As ex-NSA legal counsel Stewart Baker said: 
"Metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody's life." 

Others claim to be unbothered by the recording of their daily 
activities, confident that no one will examine their records. They may 
be right: if you never trouble the state, perhaps the state will never 
trouble you. But even so, do we want it to hold such powerful tools for 
stifling dissent, activism and even journalism?

And so to the mathematicians' role in all of this. The NSA claims to be 
thelargest employer of mathematicians in the US 
<>. It may be 
the largest in the world. It part funds GCHQ, also a major employer of 
mathematicians, and works closely with intelligence agencies in 
Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Some mathematicians work for these 
agencies full-time. Others do so during summer breaks or sabbaticals 
from their university jobs.

We will never know exactly what mathematicians have done for these 
agencies. GCHQ does not comment on intelligence matters, which is to 
say, anything it does. But revelations by former NSA contractor Edward 
Snowden suggest some possibilities.

For example, we know the NSA has undermined internet encryption. Certain 
encryption methods use pseudorandom-number generators based on the 
theory of elliptic curves. These are used to create keys for encrypted 
information, ensuring only the sender and receiver can see credit card 
details, for example.

Snowden revealed that the NSA inserted a secret back door into a widely 
used elliptic curve algorithm, allowing it to break the encryption. That 
could not have been done without sophisticated knowledge of the 
mathematics involved, the details of which were recently described by 
Thomas Hales <> of the 
University of Pittsburgh in the /Notices of the American Mathematical 
Society/ (vol 61, p 190 <>).

Mathematicians seldom face ethical questions. We enjoy the feeling that 
what we do is separate from the everyday world. As the number theorist 
G. H. Hardy wrote in 1940: "I have never done anything 'useful'. No 
discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or 
indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the 

That idea is now untenable. Mathematics clearly has practical 
applications that are highly relevant to the modern world, not least 
internet encryption.

Our work, then, can be used for both good and ill. Unfortunately for us, 
it is the latter that is in the public eye. Already unpopular for our 
role in the banking crash, we now have our largest employer running a 
system of whole-population surveillance that even a judge appointed by 
George W. Bush called "almost Orwellian".

So mathematicians must decide: do we cooperate with the intelligence 
services or not?

Our situation has been likened to that of nuclear physicists in the 
1940s. However, they knew they were building the atom bomb, whereas 
mathematicians working for the NSA or GCHQ often have little idea how 
their work will be used. Those who did so trusting that they were 
contributing to the legitimate safeguarding of national security may 
justifiably feel betrayed.

At a bare minimum, we mathematicians should talk about this. Maybe we 
should go further. Eminent mathematician Alexander Beilinson of the 
University of Chicago 
<> has proposed that 
the American Mathematical Society sever all ties with the NSA, and that 
working for it or its partners should become "socially unacceptable" in 
the same way that working for the KGB became unacceptable to many in the 
Soviet Union.

Not everyone will agree, but it reminds us that we have both individual 
choices and collective power. Individuals can withdraw their labour. 
Heads of university departments can refuse staff leave to work for the 
NSA or GCHQ. National mathematical societies can stop publishing the 
agencies' job adverts, refuse their money, or even expel members who 
work for agencies of mass surveillance.

At the very least, we should acknowledge that these choices are ours to 
make. We are human beings first and mathematicians second, and if we do 
not like what the secret services are doing, we should not cooperate.


Brian J. Fox
Opus Logica, Inc.
A: 901 Olive St., 93101
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