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November 10, 2013

Severing Ties with the NSA

Posted by Tom Leinster

Updated on 11 Dec 2013: see end of post.

A letter from Chicago mathematician Sasha Beilinson in this month’s Notices of the American Mathematical Society calls for the AMS to sever all ties with the US National Security Agency, citing

the vast secret spying programs of the NSA that wildly exceed anything conspiracy theorists could imagine.

He lists some of the ways in which the AMS and NSA support each other, and issues a call for action:

What should be done is a question not only for US citizens but also for people all over the world: the NSA destroyed the security of the Internet and privacy of communications for the whole planet. But 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.

I’m now wondering about the relationship between the LMS (London Mathematical Society, the British counterpart of the AMS) and GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters, the British counterpart of the NSA). While GCHQ may employ fewer people, it has the inestimable advantage of not being constrained by that bothersome US constitution:

We have a light oversight regime compared with the US,

according to GCHQ lawyers, which is really saying something. Moreover, it is considered by some to be more extreme in its surveillance of the general population than even the NSA.

So, I’ve written to the president and vice-presidents of the LMS asking about its — or rather, “our”, as I’m a member — relationship with GCHQ. I’d like to know the facts. It may be that there’s no significant relationship, and that’s the answer I’d like to hear; but at present I simply don’t know.

What we do as mathematicians seldom has any contact with politics or human affairs. But this is one of those occasions. The NSA and GCHQ must be two of the largest employers of mathematicians in the world. Whatever you think of the ongoing mass surveillance, it can’t be denied that this is an issue that involves, and will continue to involve, our community.


Added later:

Since we don’t usually have this kind of discussion here, let me make explicit what kind of thing I’m going to allow:

  1. Discussion of the NSA and GCHQ is fine. That’s what this is about. Both places employ large numbers of mathematicians, and mathematics is involved in the mass surveillance programs — especially in the breaking and circumvention of online encryption. This is the relevance to the mathematical community.

  2. The closer the discussion sticks to those issues that concern mathematicians, the better. If it strays too far away, I may steer it back (possibly using the “delete” button).

  3. Please try to keep the temperature down. Good ways of doing this are to provide linked references and not to appeal to emotions.

  4. The obvious stuff: no insults etc. (but I hope I don’t need to say that here). I’ll simply delete objectionable comments.

In short, please write thoughtfully, and please focus on the central issue: cooperation between the NSA/GCHQ and mathematicians.


Added on 11 Dec 2013:

I have now heard back informally from someone who was at the latest LMS Council meeting. (The Council is made up of academics and “is responsible for determining the strategy and policy of the Society”.)

Apparently, there was unanimous agreement that the LMS should at least be transparent about this, and should state publicly what connections there are between the LMS and GCHQ. (For example, GCHQ part-funds LMS instructional courses for graduate students.) I don’t know whether there was agreement on anything else, as I haven’t had an official response yet.

Posted at November 10, 2013 7:23 PM UTC

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68 Comments & 1 Trackback

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

Tom Hales has a beautiful analysis of the NSA backdoor to NIST and is arguing that formal mathematics (like HoTT) should be used as the new standard of rigour for such protocols.

Posted by: Bas Spitters on November 11, 2013 8:45 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

It seems to me that the backdooring of the elliptic curve cryptography protocols is where mathematicians have been most closely involved with the mass surveillance programs. For the most part, those programs seem to have relied on expertise in computer science, information technology and engineering rather than mathematics as such (although I’m sure a lot of math has gone into it indirectly). But I think you’ve put your finger on where it most directly touches our community.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on November 12, 2013 1:55 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

Hales’s piece, describing the mathematics of how the NSA has undermined important aspects of online encryption, is now out in the February 2014 issue of the Notices of the AMS.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on January 9, 2014 3:13 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

The NSA and GCHQ must be two of the largest employers of mathematicians in the world.

The often-repeated line in the US media is that the NSA is the largest employer of mathematicians in the world.

Posted by: Mark Meckes on November 11, 2013 9:23 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

Thanks. Incidentally, that will be a useful thing to remember next time I’m disagreeing with someone about what applied mathematics is.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on November 12, 2013 1:56 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

Beilinson’s letter strikes me as somewhat overwrought. Whatever you think of the spying programs revealed by recently stolen documents, claiming that they “wildly exceed anything conspiracy theorists could imagine” is an insult to the imaginations of conspiracy theorists. (-: Of course the NSA spies on people. All governments spy on people.

Now clearly, in a free society there are conversations to be had and balances to be struck, and reasonable people can disagree about where lines should be drawn. But Beilinson seems to be objecting to the existence of the NSA, which I find absurd. Today is Veterans Day and Remembrance Day, on which we honor those who serve in our armed forces. The mathematicians and cryptographers who work at the NSA and GCHQ do not (usually) risk their lives in the service of their country, but they play a role no less important in protecting and defending our free societies, for all that most of their work happens secretly. They deserve more honor and respect in the mathematical community, not less.

Posted by: Mike Shulman on November 12, 2013 1:14 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

claiming that they “wildly exceed anything conspiracy theorists could imagine” is an insult to the imaginations of conspiracy theorists.

Yes, of course that’s a piece of hyperbole.

Of course the NSA spies on people. All governments spy on people.

No one disputes this. The difference is between targeted spying on suspicious individuals and mass indiscriminate spying on the general population.

But Beilinson seems to be objecting to the existence of the NSA

Where did you find this in his letter?

The mathematicians and cryptographers who work at the NSA and GCHQ […] play a role […] in protecting and defending our free societies

That may be true, but they also play a role in destroying and attacking the freedom of our societies. I mean that literally. Now that I know how much my electronic communications are recorded, I feel constrained in what I do online. I feel less free.

If I were involved in any sort of anti-government campaigning or political activism or investigative journalism, I’d feel less free still. Who knows how the state could use its records of my activities against me?

The chilling effect of mass surveillance on journalism has been much discussed lately: see e.g. this letter from researchers from Columbia’s School of Journalism and MIT:

[T]he surveillance of essentially everyone has effects far beyond the surveillance of journalists alone. […] For a free press to function we must also protect the means of communicating with a journalist. At the present time, the NSA has made private electronic communication essentially impossible.

In other words, one of the effects of mass surveillance is to make the press less free.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on November 12, 2013 2:36 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

Where did you find this in his letter?

That was how I read “making the NSA socially unacceptable”, and his comparison with the KGB.

I don’t have time (nor am I sufficiently well informed) to get into a discussion about where, exactly, lines should be drawn. I don’t dispute that the NSA frequently oversteps its bounds and needs to be reined in. (So do all branches of government.) I just wanted to say that I think blanket condemnation of the agency, such as would be implied by a PNG from the AMS, is not the right way to go about it.

Posted by: Mike Shulman on November 12, 2013 4:07 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

That was how I read “making the NSA socially unacceptable”, and his comparison with the KGB.

OK. In all the articles, opinion pieces and blog comments I’ve read on this, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone express the opinion that countries should not have secret intelligence services at all. But one could rationally hold the simultaneous opinions that (i) the USA should have a secret intelligence service, and (ii) the NSA is so far out of democratic control that it should be disbanded.

I know nothing about Beilinson’s views beyond the words in his letter, and I don’t think it’s possible to deduce from those words whether he thinks the NSA should exist. Perhaps he’d be content for it to exist if it didn’t engage in mass surveillance. I don’t know.

One point I take from his letter is that there is no neutral position available to the AMS. In particular, if they continue to cooperate with the NSA, they’re knowingly cooperating with an organization that some members find repugnant. Whatever the AMS decides to do will make a political statement.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on November 12, 2013 4:47 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

Tom, maybe I misunderstood the meaning of the phrases I quoted from the letter. And Bas, as I said, I’m not interested in discussing particular sins of the NSA. Please take that literally, and not as condoning the sins in question. (-: The main point I wanted to make is that I don’t think the mathematicians who work for the NSA deserve our opprobrium, or that such a career choice should be socially unacceptable.

Posted by: Mike Shulman on November 14, 2013 12:37 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

Hi Mike,

I respect your views on this point. A few quick points:

Most people would not object against a security agency per se, but the NSA is making the world less secure by introducing security backdoors; see Felten’s analysis on this.

From what I can see Snowden is a whistleblower, not a thief, maybe I missed something. It’s somewhat cynical to see him having to flee to Russia. The ACLU is arguing that the NSA gives the impression to be first self-serving, before serving the nation.

As a non-American, I worry about my (lack of) civil rights under US spying. I thought we were “friends”.

Finally, there is the issue of spying for economic benefits.

Posted by: Bas Spitters on November 12, 2013 8:15 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

Bas, I agree with you. But in the interests of staying on topic, let’s keep Snowden out of this discussion.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on November 12, 2013 2:11 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

To know whether they deserve more or less or any honor would demand knowing how they use the data they collect by spying. If they use it to overthrow governments, locally, state, national, international, I’m not sure I can ‘honor’ that. It they overthrew Saddam Hussein, instead of arming him with Weapons of Mass Destruction, I might honor that. If they busted drug traffickers , instead of consolidating the drug trade under their chosen heads, I might honor that. Even if they assassinated an evil person, instead of a good one and replaced him with an evil one, I might honor that. Odds are I’ll never know what they did with the power they arrogate unto themselves; so I’ll never know if they merit honor or not.

[Potentially inflammatory/irrelevant end of comment removed. Please don’t stray too far from the subject: the relationship between intelligence agencies and mathematicians. — TL.]

Posted by: Gary E. Andrews on November 12, 2013 10:56 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

I’ve just deleted two comments that weren’t constructive. Since we don’t usually have this kind of discussion here, let me make explicit what kind of thing I’m going to allow:

  1. Discussion of the NSA and GCHQ is fine. That’s what this is about. Both places employ large numbers of mathematicians, and mathematics is involved in the mass surveillance programs — especially in the breaking and circumvention of online encryption. This is the relevance to the mathematical community.

  2. The closer the discussion sticks to those issues that concern mathematicians, the better. If it strays too far away, I may steer it back.

  3. Please try to keep the temperature down. Good ways of doing this are to provide linked references and not to appeal to emotions.

  4. The obvious stuff: no insults etc. (but I hope I don’t need to say that here). I’ll simply delete objectionable comments.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on November 12, 2013 2:53 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

The Electronic Frontier Foundation will run an exhibit at the Joint Mathematics Meetings in Baltimore in January. We could use some mathematicians who would be willing to volunteer some help. Let me know if you are interested.

I suspect that the NSA will be recruiting at the meetings in Baltimore with particular fervor.

Posted by: Tom Hales on November 12, 2013 4:19 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

That’s very interesting. Would I be right in assuming it’s the first time the EFF is exhibiting there, and that it’s in direct response to what the NSA is doing? If so, it seems like an excellent idea.

I’d love to help, but I’m on the wrong continent.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on November 12, 2013 2:05 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

Many mathematicians seek employment at the NSA because they cannot find work at a university.

Most of them quite frankly could probably care less about the privacy of Beilinson, or that of any other American for that matter. After all, to obtain a high-level security clearance, they had to endure a series of highly invasive interviews and background checks that can reach back a decade or more into a candidate’s past as part of building up what essentially amounts to their “FBI file.” That process alone probably does more than anything else to desensitize agency employees to the privacy expectations of others.

Worse, unlike their tenured counterparts in academia, once these mathematicians secure a job at the NSA or a related entity, they often have to suffer many of the same insults hurled upon workers throughout much of the rest of industry: rigid work hours, cantankerous and/or unreasonable bosses, meaningless meetings, unrealistic project goals, politically-driven performance reviews, restricted job autonomy, no control over one’s intellectual property, and miniscule salary increases (which often do not keep up with inflation) as the employee nears his/her retirement age. Again, finding ways to cope with such issues probably trumps worrying about the privacy rights of others for many agency employees.

Perhaps Beilinson’s energy would be better directed then toward lobbying Congress for a massive increase in the NSF’s budget that would enable more mathematicians to pursue academic careers instead of becoming a spook … rather than trying to rally them with hollow rhetoric in his AMS call to action that does little to address the underlying structural problems with research funding in this country that drives so many mathematicians to seek employment at places like the NSA in the first place.

Until then, I’m afraid that many of my comrades will continue to work for whoever can pay their bills :)

Posted by: Just Want a Paycheck on November 12, 2013 6:36 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

“work for whoever can pay their bills” - my english is limited, but I seem to remember that people who offer their body parts (in this case the brain) for such general purpose usage have some common occupational title?

Be that as it may be, obviously the mindsets and pychology of those datathefts and privacy violators are universally identical. An excellent way to get an idea of hat had been made in this film on the case of the East German secret service: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TheLivesof_Others http://www.sonyclassics.com/thelivesofothers/

Posted by: Thomas on November 12, 2013 10:05 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

Academics often seem to assume that everyone else wants to be an academic. No doubt some mathematicians at the NSA are there because they couldn’t find an academic job, but there are plenty of other reasons why someone might choose that career path, such as a dislike for aspects of the culture of academia.

Posted by: Mike Shulman on November 14, 2013 12:40 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

“All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing” - John Bentham.

I do not imply by the above quote that GCHQ or the NSA are inherently evil. However, the current spying apparatus is beyond Orwellian in it’s possible future reality.

Once tools are made, machines built, systems embedded and algorithyms enacted in computer code, they could be unleashed to any end. And we do not, and cannot know, who our future politicians will be.

As many of the recent revelations show us we have been lied to already, many times over, about the status, level and sophistication of government surveillance programs.

There is a price to pay for freedom and often that price is a little risk. The status quo is that fundamentals of so-called ‘free democratic societies’ have been trampled upon: The right to freedom of expression is curtailed, the right to a private life is curtailed, the freedoms of the press are curtailed, journalistic sources can no longer rely on the integrity of the journalist to protect them - as the underlying strata of communication itself has been infiltrated and subverted.

These prices are too high for what we gain.

There is also the question of what we are being protected from and how it arises. Much of what is done and aimed for is done in the name of protection from terrorism, yet we must ask ourselves ‘what creates terrorism?’ Terrorism does not arise from hatred of freedom but the opposite, in my opinion. Terrorism arises where people are disenfranchised by the system, government, economic and political policies: disenfranchised to the point where they feel the only way to regain a voice is through horrific criminal violence. This is abhorrent but the truth is that the current (and future possibilities) of the surveillance state only further disenfranchise, as stated above through curtailing freedom of expression and presssprotections.

There is no excuse to be a good man who stands by and does nothing. The extrapolation of where we are now, if we continue along the same road, is more terrorism, more disenfranchisement, less freedom for everyone and eventually a fascistic state apparatus at the behest of media-manipulated pocket-politicians in the hands of, and made by, giant corporations.

Freedom has a price and it is a price we must wisely choose to pay if our children and great grand children are to live in a world where even the concept of freedom still exists.

This price is non-compliance with furtherance of the surveillance state and working actively to roll back some of what exists to free freedom itself once again from the possibilities of absolute tyranny.

Our children and grand children and future generations will not forgive us for idly standing by and watching the status quo unveil in it’s inevitable direction towards Orwellian totalinarianism.

Posted by: The Irreverent Buddhist on November 12, 2013 10:20 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

The issue raised by Beilinson has nothing to do with “price for freedom” or criminalistics. E.g. www.newscientist.com/article/dn16521-random-checks-as-effective-as-terrorist-profiling.html , www.newscientist.com/article/dn1309-controlling-encryption-will-not-stop-terrorists.html

Posted by: Thomas on November 12, 2013 11:05 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

Thomas: if you’re including links, please make them clickable by using syntax like this:

[Google](http://www.google.com)

After you’ve hit “preview”, you can (and should) test that the link works.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on November 12, 2013 2:02 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

“What should be done is a question not only for US citizens but also for people all over the world: the NSA destroyed the security of the Internet and privacy of communications for the whole planet.” - it absolutely is related to the price of freedom.

Posted by: The Irreverent Buddhist on November 12, 2013 3:00 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

A massive organization with unlimited funding, cloaked in secrecy that collects information on you but whos members dont respect the freedoms or laws of those they surveil while at the same time are caught repeatedly lying to those it was created to protect should be feared regardless if that plays into their goal. The fact that any dissent inside this organizations ranks, whistle blowers etc., will be met with indefinite jail time meted out by secret courts rather than applauded for uncovering it’s crimes, should make it quite clear that this organization is incapable of changing its path from the inside. We maintain our freedoms buy standing up to tyranny. There is no other path. Unless you think being told 2 + 2 = 5 is the other path.

Posted by: Mark Nason on November 12, 2013 3:01 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

I do not expect everyone to agree on the proper liberty-security balance. One’s political positions on these matters often spring from basic moral assumptions that are difficult to change. But regardless of all that, there is one aspect of the Snowden revelations that should be deeply disturbing, especially to mathematicians.

No, I am not referring to the collect everything mentality or PRISM or spying on heads of foreign governments. I am referring instead to some of the specific means the NSA and the GCHQ use to get around encryption.

We now know that the NSA does not merely attempt to break existing encyption, it actively subverts them. It does so by building backdoors into all encryption programs it can get it’s hands on. It does so by covertly and overtly influencing and weakening the international standards that govern all the protocols that run the internet (such as making sure the widely used implementations have backdoors and that only weak curves are used for elliptic curve cryptography). And perhaps worst of all, it is likely that the NSA has influenced Intel and others to weaken the hardware random number generators that sit inside your or my computer.

Not only do the above activities make the net more insecure for everyone (the NSA’s subversion of the code that allows it to crack SSL, RC4, VPN etc. in real time also allows anyone else to do exactly the same), it also destroys something intangible, namely trust. I am referring here not just to trust in important institutions but also to our trust in the ability of mathematics to make a difference in the real world. When all this perfect and beautiful mathematics is sabotaged in ways to make it useless for most of their intended applications, it is fraudulent and criminal in ways that goes far beyond what should be acceptable, even by government spy agencies. No one knows any more what programs or implementations or hardware are backdoored. The only realistic solution is to throw away a lot of work and start over.

Yes, governments spy. But some methods used to spy are more unjustified than others.

Posted by: abhisaha on November 12, 2013 3:12 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

That’s a very interesting point about trust that you make in your penultimate paragraph. I’d read that article of Bruce Schneier’s that you link to, but I hadn’t started to think about how this loss of trust is likely to affect mathematicians and, ultimately, mathematics.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on November 12, 2013 3:58 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

It evidently takes us mathematicians a bit longer to think these things over than the average citizen, but hopefully that might mean we can do a good job of contributing at the point where general interest begins to subside…

I actually have been putting in a lot of thought, and I wrote up an opinion piece for the Notices that is scheduled for the January issue. It is not nearly as exciting as the letter this month. However, I still have time to revise, and I’d like to take the opportunity of the current discussion to ask for suggestions.

Posted by: stefan on November 12, 2013 6:44 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

Bravo for writing that! I’m glad it’s going to appear in the January Notices, and I’m not sure I share your feeling that the story is dying down: who knows what revelations are to come. (And here in Europe, the story actually seems to be heating up, for reasons that are in some sense ludicrous.)

I don’t have anything to add, except that some parts of your list reminded me of the ACLU list that Bas linked to: “two paradigms compared”.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on November 12, 2013 6:56 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

Thanks Tom. Of course I am conflicted about even allowing tax money to fund open and unclassified research, since it is funneled through the NSA budget. I suppose I might see it evaporate after my critique is published anyhow, if decision-making power correlates with shortsightedness. For now I’m relying on opinions of some of my most trusted advisers: that tax money for open research is a generally a good thing and specifically that the grant program at the NSA is a worthy of encouragement, a healthy limb of the organism.

The article about paradigms closes by claiming “the most useful way to think about the national security state is as a gigantic beast with impulses that need to be carefully controlled.” That is surely true, even though our beasts emerge from democracies. I picture a trained elephant serving the citizenry by moving logs, etc. Again via democracy, we are all both part of the elephant and part of the mahout. That metaphor raises a question though: should we sever the ties (cut the reins) that hopefully afford us some control? I guess the answer depends on your diagnosis of the beast: is it still controllable or not!

Posted by: stefan on November 12, 2013 9:45 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

Stefan’s Notices piece has now been published.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on December 9, 2013 4:18 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

I think abhisaha’s point above is a good one. The NSA revelations have deeply shaken the crypto community because it is no longer possible to know what one can trust. Even if there exists a good algorithm, there is a hopeless in the knowledge that it can never be implemented as wished. All the goodwill the NSA had from mathematicians and cryptologists is gone and the feeling left is one of betrayal. The good thing is that it will probably lead to a thorough check and overhaul of a lot of existing software in fact the process has already started.

Posted by: Just another mathematician on November 12, 2013 9:33 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

At this time you can support the constitution and sever ties with those who would subvert and pervert it, or you can support the destruction of our heritage as a free people. Several of our founders warned us that those who surrender liberty for security deserve neither and shall have neither.

BUT mathematicians will NOT sever ties with the NSA because there are as many selfish mathematicians as in any other group who will capitalize on any opportunity to make money. Sadly the real solution is to make the “encryption cracking” profession obsolete by creating private encryption algorithms which cannot even theoretically be broken.

To that end I will be offering my own unbreakable encryption algorithm on the private US market in the near future. I will be offering a limited number of complimentary copies to mathematicians who wish to evaluate my claims. All I ask in return is a written signed copy of your evaluation with permission to post it on my web site. You must be an American citizen living and working exclusively inside American territory to be eligible for this offer.

If you are interested you may contact me at:

John_Rational@hotmail.com

Privacy is returning to the world in 2014. You can use any means of communication or data storage you wish if your information is encrypted in a form no one else can access without your permission.

Posted by: John Rational on December 31, 2013 4:51 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

I think it’s important to note that (as far as anyone seems to know) the NSA hasn’t in the mathematical sense broken any encryption that was previously believed to be effective. In other words, the NSA doesn’t seem to have any powerful mathematical methods of which the rest of the world is ignorant. All the breaking of encryption has been by technological and social means — “cheating” for a mathematician, but evidently effective. I believe there will be an article by Thomas Hales about this in the next issue of the Notices; see Bas Spitters’s comment above.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on December 31, 2013 4:59 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

The NSA has a very large bank of Cray super computers which can at least use brute force attack to crack anything in very short order. To my knowledge there are very few encryption methods which cannot be broken with shear speed of processing. In fact the only one that comes to mind with certainty is the One-Time-Pad. Back doors and seductive agents ARE cheating, but a bank of 20 or more Cray 5 super computers using ALL mathematical methods faster than lightening is simply overwhelming computational power.

Mathematically all they have are the standard methods but they can apply them billions and billions of times faster than anyone else. Relative to a truly theoretically unbreakable algorithm speed of processing is irrelevant. So what we need is an algorithm which is as difficult to break as it would be to turn a singularity (Black hole) back into a star. We need an information black hole which only its creator and correspondents can un-collapse. That is the only permanent solution.

When mathematicians assure me that an algorithm is adequate because by the time it could be broken the information would be obsolete, I can’t help but think that the NSA could crack it in about a half hour. Besides some people and organizations have lawfully legitimate secrets which they want kept forever. We can have a permanent solution.

Posted by: John Rational on December 31, 2013 6:19 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

I find the “price of freedom” rhetoric completely missing the point: It is as if some financial consultant would confuse normal taking of benefits (even if maladjusted to the costumer’s gain) with simply stripping his customer’s bank account and call it “price of profit”. The sort of generic voyeurism which is the topic is just incompatible to democracy. That is well known, e.g. Susan N. Herman in the chapters on the librarian case in “Taking Liberties The War on Terror and the Erosion of American Democracy”.

Posted by: t on November 12, 2013 10:49 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

The selling argument for a robust intelligence agency is that politicians make bad decisions when they don’t understand the problem, and a neutral well informed source of information can prevent at least the ignorance part of the equation. Since politicians ideally serve the social compact of the governed, the more well informed the general public, the better.

This is what attracted ethical mathematicians and I have known many. The incidental fact is that some insights are gleaned from spying, and that special mathematical skills are required to do that.

But vastly higher and deeper mathematical insights are required to make sense, to understand the mathematics of logic and reasoning about cause, to ensure that something like meaningful insight results. The primary mission of the intelligence apparatus is thus, ‘to produce intelligence.’

Actually. Where the NSA and its spinoffs went wrong is in losing this mission. (By whom and how is irrelevant here.)

There is a difference between understanding a situation and finding a bad guy. These were different missions once upon a time, and so enforced under Church rules. With the former, the fewer secrets, the better the mission is accomplished. The more the public knows, the more we can keep our politicians on track.

The latter is police work, the business of another group. And we do have rules-that-matter for that. We can enforce those rules. It won’t be hard.

I suggest that the best people to influence the direction of these agencies are the mathematicians inside (well, mostly in contractors) who empower the whole apparatus. More engagement rather than less is what is needed.

Posted by: tedg on November 13, 2013 6:03 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

I suggest that the best people to influence the direction of these agencies are the mathematicians inside (well, mostly in contractors) who empower the whole apparatus. More engagement rather than less is what is needed.

There’s a common question in attempts to influence an established organization: is it better to engage from the inside or attack from the outside? Sometimes both are needed in order to produce positive change.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on November 13, 2013 6:13 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

A good test (to me) of whether it makes more sense to influence an established organization by a) engaging with it, or by, b) actively working against it by attempting to weaken it’s power from the outside is to check two things. One, how much of the organization’s activities, interpreted broadly, should even exist. Two, how likely it is that an ethical individual can join the organization and influence it for the better, or at the very least, stick to only doing those things within that are actually good and valuable.

The NSA, to me and many other mathematicians, fails both these tests currently. It’s mission (encapsulated quite simply as “collect it all”), is deeply screwed up and simply put, should not exist in any recognizable incarnation. And if I, an ethical mathematician were to engage with it from the inside, there is little I can do. This is a secret, hierarchical organization with little room for independent action. If I were inside, I will be part of evil (that’s how I see it, and I suspect do many others). If I, working from inside, were to dissent or attempt to make changes from within, perhaps by alerting higher-ups about my concerns, I will face the fate of William Binney or Thomas Drake.

No, the NSA is too big, too powerful and too authoritarian. It does not need to be mildly nudged, it needs to be weakened. This means countering it every way we can, by building NSA-proof encryption and email, by influencing elected officials to cut it down to size, by influencing people we know to not join it. In my mind, I can justify an ethical mathematician joining or engaging closely with Wall Street or an oil company. Not the NSA, not any more.

Posted by: abhisaha on November 14, 2013 10:32 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

Hopefully this isn’t straying too far from the blog topic; there was a section in Hannah Arendts (a student of Heideggers) book Totalitarianism which I thought apposite considering the remark of Beilinsons about the KGB. The book is a socio-political study of the roots of totalitarian regimes, her main examples being both the Nazi & Stalinist regimes. Given the emotive topic, I want to make clear that I am in no way comparing current political formations with either of these: The role of surveillance is just one small strand in a complex narrative that Arendt traces over four hundred years in Western Europe on the rise of modern totalitarian regimes.

“The Okhrana, the Czarist predecessor of the GPU, is reported to have invented a filing system in which every suspect was noted on a large card in the centre of which his name was surrounded by a red circle; his political friends were designated by smaller red circles and his non-political acquaintenances by green ones…obviously the limitations of this method are set only by the size of the filing cards, and theoretically a gigantic single sheet could show the relations and cross-relations of the entire population. And this is the utopian goal of the totalitarian secret police. It has given up the old traditional police dream which the lie detector is still supposed to realise, and no longer tries to find out who is who, or who thinks what”

The interesting thing here for me (apart from the description of the antiquated technology of the surveillance apparatus) is that this is exactly the meta-data which is scooped up by the NSA.

One of the essential differences, as far as I see, is that the populace is implicated, as a large network of informers are required and which must permeate the body of the population; whereas the NSA/GCHQ surveillance apparatus is automatic. To be fair to Arendt she does forsee this possibility:

“Now the police dreams that one look at a gigantic map on the office wall should suffice at any given moment to establish who is related to whom and in what degree of intimacy; and theoretically, this dream is not unrealisable although its technical execution is bound to be somewhat difficult”.

Posted by: mozibur ullah on November 14, 2013 11:02 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

Thanks for framing your point so carefully — I very much appreciate it. As it happens, I’m currently reading Arendt’s famous book Eichmann in Jerusalem: a report on the banality of evil, and many points in it have made me think about the NSA/GCHQ operations, but I didn’t want to mention it here for exactly the kind of reason you give: it’s such an emotive topic, and it’s far too easy for misunderstandings and upset to be caused.

Anyway, the paragraphs you quote are incredibly apposite. I’m surprised not to have seen them quoted in media reports elsewhere.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on November 14, 2013 1:52 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

I’ve been meaning to read ‘Banality of Evil’ for a while but I thought its concerns might be too particular to the actual trial.

Yes, that section struck me as being very relevant as I was reading her book - I wasn’t sure whether her description of the mass surveillance techniques she was reporting and speculating on in the language of bureacracy might make it look risible in our post-modern world.

Of course, it has the same relationship to modern surveillance as the ‘antiquated’ technology of the turing machine has to the modern computer.

Arendt does make some points about physicists in one of her other books ‘The Human Condition’, which may be (vaguely) relevant here. I think she made them when the Manhattan Project came to light.

Posted by: Mozibur Ullah on November 18, 2013 10:04 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

The ultimate responsibility for the NSA spying lies with the US government: the president, the Congress and the courts.

Posted by: Eugene on November 15, 2013 1:03 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

In a sense, yes. But responsibility also lies with those who implement it, from mathematicians to computer specialists to divers attaching surveillance devices to undersea cables. And (in a different sense) it lies with the populations who elect the politicians.

Shortly before I left Glasgow, a consultancy company who liked employing mathematicians offered to sponsor some PhDs in our department. The idea was that the student would do a PhD part time and work part-time for the company, and would be fully funded by them.

However, much of this company’s work was in the arms industry. There was a wide range of reactions from my colleagues, from “I’d consider resigning if we got into bed with these guys” to “I’ve worked with the military before and I’m proud of it”. There were also people who just felt it was none of their business. I think I found that last attitude hardest to understand.

In the end, it didn’t happen, for reasons that appear to have been completely unrelated.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on November 15, 2013 4:13 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

Before one wonders who may in which way be responsible for something, and if that were an issue of individual or organizational decisions, one needs to know more about what that “something” is. To achieve that is the purpose of publicity. So far one has only a handful of isolated informations, like the librarian case in Susan N. Herman’s previously mentioned book: By a “National Security Letter”, a librarian was ordered to copy and forward all library search histories of 288,000 people using one of 26 libraries in Hartford, Connecticut, while being interdicted to tell his boss or a lawyer about that request. If I understand those matters correctly, they conflict the american constitution: “Some will fear to read what is unpopular what the powers-that-be dislike. When the light of publicity may reach any student, any teacher, inquiry will be discouraged.” - See more at: http://sbmblog.typepad.com/sbm-blog/2010/10/first-amendment-now-includes-the-right-to-shop-in-private.html#sthash.zyhUn8YH.dpuf , http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Righttoprivacy .

Posted by: Thomas on November 15, 2013 5:48 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

Thomas, I find your comments rather hard to understand. Mostly it’s not the English, but the overall sense. I often can’t see how what you write relates to any other part of the discussion. (But I’m not asking for an explanation.)

Each time you contribute a comment, could you, perhaps, take some time to make sure that it’s both crystal clear and relevant to the discussion? In this case, “relevant” means to do with the relationship between the NSA/GCHQ and mathematicians.

Also, please follow my request to you on including links.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on November 15, 2013 6:05 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

Tom, I think it is very clear: The letter is about the question if the AMS should or should not cooperate with that institution. That it is the AMS and not e.g. a union of philatelists, derives from that Beilinson is a mathematician, a member of the AMS (and surely the letter results from some discussions within it), and that many mathematicians work for the NSA. If all that would be valid for an other organization, his call would be the same. The reason he gives is the nature of the work of the NSA (and applies to silimar companies or institutions), not the nature of mathematics.

Posted by: Thomas on November 15, 2013 10:27 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

As I said, I wasn’t asking for an explanation. I was asking you — in general — to please take more care to make your comments clear, comprehensible and relevant. (And that’s the end of this thread.)

Posted by: Tom Leinster on November 15, 2013 10:44 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

The cause why those institutions became incompatible with democracy is the deterioration of journalism, which worked in the past because communication with journalists was safe and in democracy even protected by the law. So I think that the AMS could even offer cures (instead of only cutting the links with the NSA and other such institutions) for restoring a democratic process by mathematical expertise for rebuilding such communication routes (like antisclerotic drugs reopen veins). An absence or onset of opposition and interference would tell if and to which extent Beilinson is correct in his assessment.

Posted by: Thomas on November 15, 2013 3:56 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

Please tell me we’re not conflating the NSA with the KGB or any of its predecessors or latter incarnations. The US provides what is by any measure an unprecedented degree of freedom to its citizens, whether born here or abroad. The fact that Beilenson conflates the two is depressing, but reminiscent of the political naivete of some other brilliant mathematicians.

Posted by: Roy on November 18, 2013 2:57 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

I don’t think he’s conflating anything with anything. Here’s what he says about the KGB, in its entirety:

But 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.

He suggests ostracizing the NSA in the same way that the KGB was ostracized in certain circles. That’s all. He does not say “the NSA is as bad as the KGB was” or anything of the sort.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on November 18, 2013 8:37 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

Instead, why not just abolish the NSA? http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/abolish-the-nsa?source=c.url&r_by=9496530

Posted by: Kipo on November 18, 2013 4:54 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

I can’t speak for others, but for myself, Beilinson isn’t conflating the two, but pointing out a salient fact that mass surveillance was a characteristic of (some) totalitarian regimes, and using the KGB as shorthand for this. This is not to say that Western democracies have suddenly overnight become totalitarian.

I don’t dispute that a state requires policing and some of this will be in secret; but politically-philosophically speaking how far must the policing of the state go before it becomes a police state? Surely this is a question worth asking when it takes only a little reflection to see that technology has progressed to a point where mass surveillance is a relatively straight-forward proposition, as has been proved the case; and given the close connection between policing and surveillance.

It might be worth quoting here from Agambens ‘State of Exception’. He is a prominent Italian Philosopher in the continental tradition.

“In a technical sense, the Italian Republic is no longer parliamentary, but executive. And it is significant that though this transformation of the constitutional order (which is today underway to varying degrees in all the Western democracies) is perfectly well known to jurists and politicians, it has remained entirely unnoticed by the citizens”.

That the indiscriminate surveillance of the public has come to pass without public and parliamentary oversight or debate surely underlines to some degree his point?

It might also be worth noting that it was a journalist with training in constitutional law that broke the story.

Posted by: Mozibur Ullah on November 18, 2013 9:11 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

Mozibar, I’m in agreement with the beginning of your response, but I would strengthen it. The United States is not remotely comparable to the former Soviet Union or Russia today, where journalists and dissidents are murdered with impunity at the behest of the government and homosexuals and other minorities, particularly those hailing from former client states, are persecuted. The only recourse in defense of Beilenson’s stance is a kind of ‘slippery slope’ argument in which NSA betokens a kind of inexorable slide toward fascism, which I do not find credible. The U.S. is far from perfect, but it is also far from your example, Italy, which is beset with far more corruption at the government level than the U.S. We are not moving toward fascism; in fact, a sober look at history reveals we are headed progressively toward greater and greater freedom here, irrespective of our gender, sexuality or place of birth.

Posted by: Roy on November 18, 2013 4:03 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

I’m glad that someone else feels as I did in reaction to this part of Beilinson’s letter. It is technically correct, as Tom says, that Beilinson does not say “the NSA is as bad as the KGB was”. However, a comment of this sort does imply (in the non-mathematical sense) some kind of comparison between the two. To suggest that working for the NSA be unacceptable “just as” working for the KGB was implies that the two activites are morally comparable; otherwise how could they deserve the same sort of ostracism?

Posted by: Mike Shulman on November 18, 2013 7:23 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

The NSA/KGB comparison seems to me to be a red herring. It doesn’t matter which is worse (whatever that means).

For mathematicians, the important, practical, pressing question is: has the NSA behaved badly enough that you should cease to support it, either directly through your work, or indirectly through your membership of a learned society that supports it?

Posted by: Tom Leinster on November 23, 2013 10:45 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

…has the NSA behaved badly enough that you should cease to support it…?

The question presupposes that the NSA is autonomous. I am not convinced that this is so clear cut. It can certainly advocate a policy, and you may find a policy it advocates ill-advised or morally unacceptable. However I don’t think the NSA can unilaterally set its direction. It is not a state within a state.

Moral comparisons aside, the Soviet KGB was answerable to the Communist party as was East German Stasi and so on. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of a state that is/was run by a spy agency.

Posted by: Eugene on November 24, 2013 3:18 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

I didn’t presuppose that. I merely stated the immediate question that faces mathematicians.

Even if you believe that the NSA is just following orders, surely there’s some degree of wrongdoing at which you’d draw the line and want to cut ties with them?

Posted by: Tom Leinster on November 24, 2013 6:16 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

I agree that “just following the orders” is no excuse. But Beilinson’s proposal gets those who presumably gave the orders completely off the hook. This is the main point where I disagree with him. “Boycott the NSA and you are done” feels wrong to me.

That and the absence of shades of gray. People full of moral certainty scare me. People who feel morally superior are even more scary.

Posted by: Eugene on November 24, 2013 12:48 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

People full of moral certainty scare me. People who feel morally superior are even more scary.

I know what you mean. Personally, I don’t find it helpful to think in terms of morality. I prefer to ask myself “what kind of world do I want to live in?”

That said, no one should be scared of having convictions. One way in which the powerful exercise control is by creating the impression that anyone opposing them is an extremist, a radical, a zealot. Not so many years ago, if you declared that the US state was routinely carrying out torture, you’d have been painted by the establishment as some sort of mad conspiracy theorist. Now, of course, it’s a commonplace statement — but only through the efforts of investigative reporters who, refusing to be scared off, found out the facts.

Or to use an example closer to home: the big scientific publishing houses used to scoff at the idea of free, online-only journals as some sort of fringe activity. Scaremongering, they claimed that the scientific process would be damaged, that peer review wouldn’t be done properly, that only they (the self-styled mainstream) could provide what scientists need. Nowadays, not so many people believe them, but it’s taken fighting by some principled and committed people to get us to this stage.

Another way in which powerful organizations exert control is by hiding information. You can’t vigorously challenge them if you don’t have the facts — so by hiding the facts, they entrench their positions. Again, Elsevier have done this (and continue to do so, as far as I know) by using anti-disclosure agreements to prevent libraries from saying how much they’re paying for their bundles.

Concealing information actually has a second advantage for such organizations (apart from making it harder to challenge them): anyone who does succeed in uncovering the information genuinely is likely to be somewhat obsessive — they’d have to be in order to succeed — which means they can easily be dismissed as fanatics or zealots. But again, it’s simply necessary for some people to be that committed if the challenge is one worth mounting.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on December 3, 2013 1:45 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

I am sorry I have been too cagey about the central issue:

what is to be done?

I think it would be appropriate for the professional societies such as the AMS to strongly condemn NSA’s domestic spying programs and NSA’s efforts to undermine the encription standards. I think such a condemnation has a chance being passed. The proposal to sever all ties is less likely to fly…

I think it’s important to remember that the Obama administration is directly responsible for what the NSA does and doesn’t do. We don’t want to have is a re-run of the aftermath of Abu Ghraib, where scapegoates were found and punished,

No, no one should be scared of having convictions. But it is probably a good idea to cultivate a tinge of doubt about their correctness and certainty.

It may also be useful to think about what drives the policies that we are so unhappy about. I find The Violence of Peace by Stephen Carter an interesting read.

Finally I can’t resist comenting on Beilinson’s statement that “working for the KGB was socially unacceptable for many in the Soviet Union.” What was socially unacceptible for many is to inform on your friends for the KGB. The rest were shades of gray. Everyone joined the Pioneers. Most joined the Young Communist League — it was commonly believed that without that you would not get into college. Some joined the Communist Party as a career promoting move. And it was the Communist Party that gave the KGB its marching orders…

Posted by: Eugene on December 3, 2013 5:36 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

The NSA is akin to nightmares that can be totally destructive for you (and those nearby). If you don’t see them as a brain disease that serves no purpose and does not answer to anything in the outer world, the true reality, whatever it is, stops to exist for you.

Madness plays a major role in human history, no less than in personal stories. Sometimes it becomes the main force. I would think this is what happens now with the US. It is sad fact that madness ultimately leads to unlimited violence (take Hitler’s Germany, the Lenin/Stalin Russia, or the USA of XIX century).

There is Breugel’s painting “Mad Meg”: a woman, sword in hand and stare fixed, in her rush to plunder brings the Hell into existence. The NSA is a facet of the Mad Meg’s reality. Others are wars waged for the sole reason to keep going the enormous army machine, the financial system dominated by structures that enrich themselves enormously on machinations with non-existent money, etc., etc., etc. A source of it might be “The Snow Queen” splinter in our eye - the belief that the Earth is our species’ property, open as such for rape, plunder, and destruction.

It is strange that a comparison of NSA with KGB can be seen as any surprising. I’ve lived in the SU for the half of my life, and I do not see any substantial difference between the Brezhnev regime and the Bush-Obama one.

Unfortunately, the simple things are most difficult to convey, especially to truly smart people. Awhile ago I told to my old friend (who is a most brilliant mathematician) how sad it is that his son, who just graduated from MIT, went to Wall Street; he did not understand. Would it be possible to explain to Heidegger of the beginning of the 30s that joining the Nazi Party is a bad idea?

Posted by: Alexander Beilinson on November 23, 2013 4:02 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

Roy,

A sober look at history whilst contemplating the contemporary condition is of course the correct position to adopt; but one may ask why are these comparisons to the former Soviet Union being made?

If someone was to ask me last year for a state that indulged in mass surveillance of its citizens I would have picked on the former Soviet Union as I suspect many if not most would do so. I’d suggest that it was the rhetoric of the cold war that established a symbolic link between mass surveillance and oppression in the Soviet Union which one supposes why it is disquieting that the NSA/GCHQ is also indulging in this.

Your own description as to why the USA is not the Soviet Union does this - you point out that it doesn’t disappear dissidents and journalists as the Soviet Union has been known to do so. If in (some counter-factual world) the USA did do so, would then mitigating factors be found so that moral distance remains?

Jeremy Scahill, An American Journalist has this to say:

“Under President Obama the US justice department has authorised the seizure of the phone records of journalists; they are tracking the meta-data of journalists; they’re prosecuting whistleblowers in record numbers under the Espionage Act; there really is a war against journalism. For everyone who does this kind of work, where you’re taking on powerful institutions, the responsible posture to take is to assume they’re monitoring your communications. It’s a part of doing this work.”

Agamben does discuss fascism in its proper context as a particular political ideology of its time with its locus in Italy; he doesn’t make the mistake of equating every concentration of power in the executive as fascistic; in fact as the late American Political Scientist Clinton Rossiter points out in ‘Constitutional Dictatorship’ this form of political power has constitutional backing, generally in times of crisis, in the four jurisdictions that he examines - the UK, Germany, France & the US. He says:

“It is written in frank recognition of a dangerous but inescapable truth:’No form of government can survive that excludes dictatorship when the life of the nation is at stake’.”

He also writes in the last section:

“Professor Rappard has pointed out that the concentration of power in the executive, the governmental invasion of the field of free enterprise, and the increasing encroachment of the state upon the liberties of its citizens are changes characteristic of all modern democracies”.

This forshadows Agambens point. He goes on to say:

“There are those who believe that these twentieth century departures of democratic government will aid the cause of human freedom. Nevertheless, all three are clearly repugnant to the Western democratic tradition; any particular step in their direction should be instituted as a permanent policy only by the elected representatives of the people and only after full deliberation and popular acquiescence, not in the confusion of some national crisis”.

I would speculate if the mass surveillance of its own citizens had been proposed by the executive to the legislature to win ‘popular acquiscience’ it would have been thrown out.

The above theoretical exegesis is underlined by what has happened on the ground in the US as the report in the New Yorker by John Cassidy points out:

“In retrospect, whats most notable about the order President Bush signed are the restrictions it contained. Originally, it lasted for just thirty days, and was limited to online communications in which at least one of the communicants was located outside the United States. Moreover, it was explicitly based on ‘the Presidents determination that after 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, an extraordinary emergency existed for national defense purposes.’ Over time, though, the ‘extraordinary emergency’ was deemed a permanent state of affairs, and the scope of the authorisation broadened until, eventually, it came to include even the collection of data from communications between American citizens inside the United States.”

Posted by: Mozibur Ullah on November 25, 2013 6:31 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

Sasha Beilinson’s last post helps put the NSA debate within the appropriate larger framework, one we can call “responsibility of mathematicians”. In the previous century, the physicists were the most powerful scientists. This power came so quickly to them and in such a perilous times (WWII), that many did not pay attention to the responsibility that comes with the influence. When one day, they woke up and realized that they have given their government unchecked powers to literally destroy the world many times over, it was already too late.

Mathematicians are arguably the most powerful scientists of the current century, because of their enormous influence in the financial industry and the NSA (and the military/industrial complex, in general). They had a huge role in the recent financial meltdown; however, I have not seen a serious debate among mathematicians about their role and responsibility in that disaster. It is a welcome change that a debate is starting to happen amongst mathematicians regarding the NSA debacle.

While I sympathise with Sasha’s call to severe ties with the NSA (or the Wall Street) I don’t think this is a very realistic solution. As long as NSA and Wall Street are socially acceptable institution, it is difficult to convince general mathematicians that they need to make a break with them. The difference with KGB is that the latter, as far as I understand, was not a socially acceptable institution. It was feared and loathed by the general population which included the mathematicians.

Sasha explains that NSA is no less effective in destroying personal freedoms than KGB. Due to my ignorance, I’m not in a position to judge this proposition; However, it is clear that the KGB and NSA don’t have the same image among the population of SU and USA, respectively. Until that changes, mathematicians need to find other ways to raise awareness and bring checks and balances to the system.

Posted by: Dr. Evil on November 29, 2013 6:48 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

One point just occurred to me is that even with perfect encryption of content meta-data is still available.

Unless of course one can encrypt meta-data, but that given my fairly trivial knowledge of how the internet works, seems infeasible; but I could be very wrong.

Posted by: Mozibur Ullah on December 9, 2013 10:04 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

If you’re talking about email metadata, I believe you’re right. As I understand it (and I’m certainly not an expert either), it’s built into the way that email works that the metadata is publicly visible. Unlike the data itself, you can’t encrypt it.

Here’s an expert account from Silent Circle: Why can’t email be secure?. And here’s a less technical version, again from Silent Circle, but this time via the Guardian:

Silent Circle on secure electronic communications: ‘You may wish to avoid email altogether…’, The Guardian, 19 Aug 2013.

(Silent Circle, you may remember, used to provide an email service but shut it down ‘to prevent spying’, shortly after Lavabit did the same in response to US government demands to hand over the encryption keys for all its users.)

Posted by: Tom Leinster on December 11, 2013 1:31 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

Ok, so technically its an impossibility. It does lead to an interesting question whether secure meta-data is theoretically possible or impossible.

I suspect not - but all I’ve got to go on is the intuitive feeling that addressing must be public for any chance of messaging to work. Perhaps it could be re-jigged so that one can only know determine ‘local’ hops - the ones before and after at any node; and then send a message not on the most efficient route - but on a long and zig-zaggy one - kind of reminiscent of losing the police in a cops’n’robbers movie!

Posted by: Mozibur Ullah on December 12, 2013 9:00 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

I believe this zigzag method is how Tor works.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on December 12, 2013 12:27 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Severing Ties with the NSA

I’ve just updated the post as follows:

I have now heard back informally from someone who was at the latest LMS Council meeting. (The Council is made up of academics and “is responsible for determining the strategy and policy of the Society”.)

Apparently, there was unanimous agreement that the LMS should at least be transparent about this, and should state publicly what connections there are between the LMS and GCHQ. (For example, GCHQ part-funds LMS instructional courses for graduate students.) I don’t know whether there was agreement on anything else, as I haven’t had an official response yet.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on December 11, 2013 1:19 AM | Permalink | Reply to this
Read the post Academics Against Mass Surveillance
Weblog: The n-Category Café
Excerpt: Add your name to a public declaration against the systematic recording of our daily activities.
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