Mathematicians speak out against working for the NSA

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

June 10, 2014

It is an unfortunate fact that in the United States the largest employer of mathematics graduates is almost certainly the NSA. As Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Staff Technologist Yan Zhu gloomily observed when attending the Joint Mathematics Meeting in January, a gathering of over 3000 mathematicians and math students, which took place at the Baltimore Convention Center, just 22 minutes away from NSA headquarters in Fort Meade,

Students are mainly just interested in getting a job after graduation not in activism. People were around the NSA booth all the time when I walked by. When I looked at the NSA sign-up sheet for people who wanted to interview on site for summer internships, it was always full.

However some mathematicians, concerned at the how the NSA systematically abuses its powers, have started to speak up and urge their fellows to be more principled in their choice of employer. Thomas Hales is a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Pittsburgh, who describes himself as a ‘mathematician who’s upset about what’s going on,’ explains the problem,

Many mathematicians work for the NSA or organizations with ties to it. They’re involved in facial recognition development and big data aspects of mass surveillance. If privacy disappears from the face of the Earth, mathematicians will be some of the primary culprits.

Hales is not alone. In an open letter published in August last year by Slate, Charles Seife (a mathematician working for the NSA 1992-1993) and now a journalism professor, recalled how,

The agency insisted, over and over, that the weapons we were building—and weapons they are, even if they’re weapons of information—would never be turned on our own people, but would only be used upon our enemies. What do we do now that we have to face the fact that the Agency broke its word? … I feel compelled to speak out to say that I’m horrified. If this is really what the agency stands for, I am sorry to have helped in whatever small way that I did.’

ReferencingEdward Snowden revelations, Seife spoke of his horror at them, and urged his colleagues ‘speak out now,’

I worked for the agency for only a very short time, and that was a long time ago. Yet I feel compelled to speak out to say that I’m horrified. If this is really what the agency stands for, I am sorry to have helped in whatever small way that I did.

I can only guess how much more horrified the ex-NSAers I know—you, my former colleagues, my friends, my professors, and my mentors—must be. Unlike me, you have spent much of your working lives helping the NSA build its power, only to see your years of work used in a way it was never supposed to be used. You could speak out now in a way that violates neither your secrecy agreement nor your honor. It’s hard to believe that the professors I know at universities around the country would remain silent as the NSA abuses their trust and misuses their work.

In the same month Professor Alexander ‘Sasha’ Beilinson of the University of Chicago urged the American Mathematical Society to stop accepting grants from the NSA to do math research,

The NSA destroyed the security of the Internet and privacy of communications for the whole planet. If any healing is possible, it would probably start with making the NSA and its ilk socially unacceptable — just as, in the days of my youth, working for the KGB was socially unacceptable for many in the Soviet Union. Any relationship with an organization whose activity is so harmful for the fabric of human society is unhealthy. For the sake of integrity, the AMS should shun all contacts with the NSA.

Unfortunately these urgings largely fell on deaf ears at the time, despite receiving ‘some letters of support, mostly from the young mathematicians.’ The AMS stated that it would not deter members from working for the NSA, but this week six pages of the AMS newsletter is devoted to discussions on Edward Snowden and the NSA.

While one of the two mathematicians in this discussion, Professor Andrew Odlyzko of the University of Minnesota, seems more alarmed that the NSA allowed the leaks to happen, Professor Keith Devlin of Stanford University writes that he felt an ‘intense betrayal when I learned how [the intelligence community] took the work I and many others did over many years, with a genuine desire to prevent another 9/11 attack, and subverted it in ways that run totally counter to the founding principles of the United States, that cause huge harm to the US economy, and that almost certainly weaken our ability to defend ourselves.

He also told Kashmir Hill of Forbes that,

I think mathematicians should refuse to work for the NSA until they both follow the US Constitution and demonstrate responsible use of mathematical tools. The latter is something they clearly failed to do by engineering weaknesses into mathematical crypto systems, which mathematicians know to be a very dangerous thing to do. I think it is very regrettable that the current NSA leadership has broken the immense goodwill that most of us in the mathematical community once had toward them.

Edward Frenkel, professor of mathematics at UC–Berkeley and author of Love and Math: The Heart of Hidden Reality, was shocked at the NSAs efforts to underminewidely used encryption systems, and argued that,

We live in a new era in which mathematics has become a powerful weapon… Members of my community must initiate a serious discussion about our role in this brave new world. We need to find mechanisms to protect the freedom of mathematical knowledge that we love and cherish. And we have to help the public understand both the awesome power of math and the serious consequences that await all of us if that power is misused.

A similar view was expressed in New Scientist by Edinburgh University mathematician Tom Leinster, who argues that,

We have both individual choices and collective power. Individuals can withdraw their labor. 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.’

As we noted at the beginning of this article, these voices of dissent are lonely ones in the society of mathematicians, but more are joining them, and, as Hales notes,

I’m a mathematician, I’m not in politics. As a citizen, I’m outraged by what’s happening, and find the small size of the public response to be very disturbing. It seems that the most influence I can have is within the mathematics community. I really hoped that things would change for mathematicians as a result of the Snowden documents, but it’s happening more slowly than I hoped it would.

On a practical level, Hale has started to teach a graduate level course in encryption, and will in the future discourage his students from working for the NSA. Zhu of the EFF is also keen to point out that other options for mathematics graduates exist other than working for the NSA,

The NSA is illegally mass-spying on people. I realize that people who have done pure math probably don’t have a lot of other career options, but I encouraged those who wanted to talk to learn to code or program, and pointed out that EFF has hired a lot of mathematicians. We weren’t doing recruiting just trying to inform them that there are people who are very against the NSA.

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