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
leaders, 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
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
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
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
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 world."
That idea is now
untenable. Mathematics clearly has practical applications that
are highly relevant to the modern world, not least internet
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
Brian J. Fox
Opus Logica, Inc.
A: 901 Olive St., 93101