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February 11, 2014

The Deteriorating Relationship Between Academics and the NSA

Posted by Tom Leinster

Stefan Forcey just alerted me to a long and reflective piece (edit: now paywalled) in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the relationship between the NSA and American academics — mathematicians in particular.

Now many academics are trying to be heard from the outside, arguing that the NSA’s spying tactics are proving counterproductive and that university researchers have a duty to stop assisting them. […]

In the months since Edward J. Snowden fled the United States with tens of thousands of electronic documents describing NSA practices, mathematicians are realizing that they are in the same position as nuclear physicists in the middle of the last century, and business students in more recent times — suddenly needing to figure out the ethics behind what they do, said Edward Frenkel, a professor of mathematics at the University of California at Berkeley.

The Chronicle article cites not only various sources that have been mentioned here at the Café before (e.g. Beilinson’s letter and Stefan’s Notices article), but also something that hasn’t:

Their appeals were followed on January 24 by an open letter from a group of 50 researchers warning of long-term damage to society and to the nation’s technological enterprise from the NSA’s reported tactic of intentionally weakening computer-security standards so it can carry out spy operations.

“Every country, including our own, must give intelligence and law-enforcement authorities the means to pursue terrorists and criminals,” the researchers wrote, “but we can do so without fundamentally undermining the security that enables commerce, entertainment, personal communication, and other aspects of 21st-century life.”

Shunned as NSA advisers, academics question their ties to the agency, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 10 February 2014. [Article was readable for free when I first put this post up, but got put behind a paywall a few days later.]

Posted at February 11, 2014 12:04 AM UTC

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Re: The Deteriorating Relationship Between Academics and the NSA

Thanks Tom! I have a longish comment planned that is mostly a personal appeal–but first I wanted to post a link to the main site for the letter writing campaign that starts today. The focus is on asking for the passage of the freedom act.

This is the same campaign that will be advertised by over 5000 other .org and .com websites today, so it is the chance to be part of a some possibly very significant action.

Posted by: stefan on February 11, 2014 12:16 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Deteriorating Relationship Between Academics and the NSA

Ok, I know this may be asking for punishment but I would like to invite comments aimed at helping me make an important decision. Usually I’d like to decide things with much less input, but the situation seems to be inherently a community problem.

In case anyone doesn’t know, the AMS runs a competition for small research grants (small means less than 20K for a year) called “young investigator grants,” funded by the Mathematical Sciences Program at the NSA. Last year I found out that my grant proposal was a winner just about the same time that Edward Snowden exposed the troubling nature of NSA surveillance, secrecy, and interaction with public encryption.

Now I’m active in trying to argue for reforms–and that means I’m potentially a hypocrite, or at least maybe caught in a conflict of interest, in the sense of receiving tax money from the very organization I’m criticizing. I’d agree that it would be hypocritical to simultaneously call for reforms and secretly work against those reforms, but from what I can tell the Mathematical Sciences Program does not need reformed. It would also be hypocritical to call for reforms and proceed to do something that hurts the chances of those reforms occurring: and that is the question I want to ask.

In the interest of helping myself see things clearly I’ve listed several choices, with pros and cons of each. There are necessarily some redundancies. The question becomes: how should these pros and cons be weighted? Do some outweigh others in such a powerful imbalance that the decision is clear? Maybe I’ve missed a key factor? I would like to hear any thoughts. Email or even written letters are fine too, although there are some 15-20 other mathematicians in my position that might also be interested!

Choice 1: take the money.

pros:

-use it to fund my students, university, family needs

-use it to further basic, open, unclassified research,

-(if published) give moral support to a good subset of the NSA, the math sciences program, and the AMS.

cons:

-(if published) give tacit approval and undeserved PR value to the status quo at the NSA as a whole, and the US govt in general,

-miss the chance to make a stronger statement about the need for reform, analogous to a hunger strike.

Choice 2: refuse the money publicly.

pros:

-make a statement about the need for reform,

-earn approval from those who call for complete disassociation with the NSA

cons:

-possibly hurt chances for future funding, both for myself and colleagues in my department (opinion of someone in our research office).

-possibly strike a blow that hurts part of the NSA which in fact needs no reform (the math sciences program)

Choice 3: wait and see a little longer.

pros:

-perhaps if the freedom act is passed, or more positive executive actions are born from the president’s recent responses and decisions, then the negatives for choice 1 listed above will be mitigated.

-Or, if the situation at the NSA stays the same or worsens then the negative consequences of choice 2 above will be negligible in comparison to the positives.

cons:

-the danger of waiting is vague–perhaps there is a crucial moment for making a good decision one way or the other and this moment might be missed.

Posted by: stefan on February 11, 2014 8:20 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Deteriorating Relationship Between Academics and the NSA

I think that the two strongest criteria are definitely the first two pros under Option 1. Those are the ones that actually accomplish something; everything else is signalling. If you want to make a statement, then write something; if you want to do some research, then get funding for it. And you can do both: take the money while publicly explaining your concerns.

Besides hypocrisy, there is the potential for conflict of interest. This requires personal discipline. If you support increased funding for an unreformed NSA because some of it will fund your and others' research, then they've made a sucker out of you. But if you're talking about a one-time grant for limited funds, then this is not a big danger.

I write this as somebody who's probably even more against the NSA than you. While the USA FREEDOM Act is a fine idea, it wouldn't fundamentally change the NSA, which is (IMO) an inherently corrupt and evil institution. I will never support funding for the NSA. But I will always take their money.

(Hopefully this doesn't get derailed into a discussion of my previous paragraph. I want people to think ‘Toby, your opinion is naïve and dangerous; you don't know what you're talking about.’ and then use this as context to interpret the first two paragraphs.)

Posted by: Toby Bartels on February 11, 2014 8:40 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Deteriorating Relationship Between Academics and the NSA

Stefan and I have already exchanged a couple of emails about this, but let me say in public two things that I’ve already said in private.

The first is that it can be incredibly hard to refuse money. In 2003, I applied for a postdoc position in Cambridge that would have involved summers working at GCHQ. I had serious misgivings about being involved with GCHQ, which intensified when I was invited for interview: should I go or not? After talking to some friends, I made the decision that I’d simply cross that bridge when I came to it, i.e. go to the interview and think again about the ethics of it if I was offered the job. I wasn’t, so there was nothing to decide in the end.

But this experience taught me some lessons. To begin with, I probably would have caved in if the offer had been made. I don’t like to believe that about myself, but I suspect it’s the truth. By leaving the decision until after the interview, I was overestimating my own strength of mind. So I do have some sympathy for mathematicians who work for the secret services, despite the evil that they do. And Stefan’s grant wouldn’t even mean “working for” them as such.

I’m also glad that I didn’t end up doing that job. I was glad even before the Snowden revelations, and even before we learned of the phoniness of the intelligence that was used to justify invading Iraq.

The second point is about this:

possibly hurt chances for future funding, both for myself and colleagues in my department (opinion of someone in our research office).

The suggestion from the person in Stefan’s research office seems to be that if he turns down the NSA grant, then others in his department will be less likely to receive grants from the NSA in future. Maybe there’s been some miscommunication somewhere along the line, but if they’re justified in saying that, it would be shockingly vindictive behaviour on the part of the NSA.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on February 11, 2014 11:10 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Deteriorating Relationship Between Academics and the NSA

You know those disclaimers that some funders make people put in the acknowledgements section? Such as

XYZ was supported by grant no. 123456789 from body N. The views etc in this paper are those of XYZ and not endorsed etc by body N?

You could do a reverse disclaimer:

XYZ was supported by grant no. 123456789 from body N. The views etc in this paper are those of XYZ and not endorsed etc by body N. Likewise, the position of body N as relates to (blah) is not endorsed etc by XYZ.

Posted by: David Roberts on February 12, 2014 12:39 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Deteriorating Relationship Between Academics and the NSA

Hmm, I thought everyone would be queueing up to offer Stefan advice. Either no one wants the weight of this decision on their shoulders, or people simply aren’t as opinionated as I believed.

What we really need is some public-spirited millionaire who’ll match any NSA grant declined by anyone principled enough to do so.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on February 12, 2014 6:42 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Deteriorating Relationship Between Academics and the NSA

I didn’t bother to offer my own advice because I basically agreed with what Toby already said.

I seem to recall that sometime recently John B., probably over at Azimuth, said something to the effect of, “I happily take anyone’s money, because if I don’t then they might do something worse with it.” That sounds reasonable to me. The only major caveat is in Toby’s second paragraph.

Posted by: Mark Meckes on February 12, 2014 7:19 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Deteriorating Relationship Between Academics and the NSA

“I seem to recall that sometime recently John B., probably over at Azimuth, said something to the effect of, “I happily take anyone’s money, because if I don’t then they might do something worse with it.” That sounds reasonable to me. The only major caveat is in Toby’s second paragraph.”

A question here is in how far someone may bring you with this support into a (for example dependency) situation where you are not anymore more capable to refuse to work on things you don’t want to work on (like don’t want to work for moral reasons etc.)

Posted by: nad on February 22, 2014 6:37 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Deteriorating Relationship Between Academics and the NSA

Right, that’s what Toby brought up in his second paragraph.

Posted by: Mark Meckes on February 22, 2014 8:49 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Deteriorating Relationship Between Academics and the NSA

What I mean is a bit different, but may be he meant the same. I think you are referring to what Toby wrote here:

“Besides hypocrisy, there is the potential for conflict of interest. This requires personal discipline. If you support increased funding for an unreformed NSA because some of it will fund your and others’ research, then they’ve made a sucker out of you. But if you’re talking about a one-time grant for limited funds, then this is not a big danger.”

That is I think you may even cease to support increased funding for an unreformed NSA, but still be hooked on it.

Posted by: nad on February 22, 2014 9:31 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Deteriorating Relationship Between Academics and the NSA

I see. You’re right, that is somewhat different. I don’t think the issue you raise is particularly relevant to the specific situation at hand (namely, the young investigator grants from the NSA), although it can certainly arise for certain other funding sources. The NSA grants fund unclassified academic research in various parts of pure mathematics, but specifically do not fund work in, e.g., cryptography. On the other hand, I believe that the US Department of Defense (through DARPA and other agencies) does fund work which is quite close to military applications.

Posted by: Mark Meckes on February 22, 2014 10:27 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Deteriorating Relationship Between Academics and the NSA

If you take money from them, you are complicit with them. Whether you can live with that is your problem. Morally there’s no difference with taking money from funding sources dedicated to manufacturing missiles.

Posted by: Bobito on February 14, 2014 5:04 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Deteriorating Relationship Between Academics and the NSA

I disagree with the notion that accepting the grant gives ‘tacit approval’ to the status quo at the NSA: You would simply accept a taxpayer-funded contribution to your research which would not benefit any of the NSA’s goals.

I’m convinced that a public statement on your website and a short sentence in the acknowledgements section of your publications would receive more attention than declining the award, and would make clear what your real opinion on the intelligence agency is.

Posted by: Christian on February 14, 2014 2:56 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Deteriorating Relationship Between Academics and the NSA

One problem with the idea that accepting a grant from an organization means that you tacitly approve of the organization’s actions, or are even complicit with them, is that the organization itself may be a big, complicated thing with many different parts and many different, even conflicting, aims and actions. Stefan has already drawn a distinction between the mathematical sciences program at the NSA and the rest of the NSA. But why stop there? The US federal government does all kinds of things that I don’t approve of, from warrantless wiretaps to farm subsidies. Is every researcher who accepts a grant from the NSF or NIH complicit with the US federal government? Or to get narrower again, suppose the NSF gives some grants to support research which I don’t approve above (say, because of potential military applications). Does that imply that I shouldn’t accept money from the NSF?

Let me stress that hypotheticals I’m discussing, and the decision Stefan is considering, seem to me to be quite different from the decision Tom faced, which would have involved his working directly at GCHQ, as opposed to simply using their money to support one’s own self-directed research.

Posted by: Mark Meckes on February 15, 2014 8:49 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Deteriorating Relationship Between Academics and the NSA

Its a tough decision. I haven’t worked in an academic environment (which also makes me feel a little uneasy in offering advice to someone working in that environment) so I’ve no experience of how easy or difficult it is to fund research, but my impression is that getting funding for basic research is getting increasingly difficult, and one should at least take that into account. For example, surely its useful to know what proportion of departmental funding is from the NSA?

Personal conscience matters too - when I’ve gone against my better judgement, I usually find, but not always that I’ve regretted it.

If you take the money from an organisation then this doesn’t necessarily mean that one endorses everything that this organisation does. It is after all at one remove from actually working there, and also in the scale of things, the funding is quite small and it isn’t I assume asking for a long-term working relationship where one becomes publicly associated with the organisation. It might be worth making clear to the funders, as David Roberts mentioned, that there are specific things that you yourself aren’t happy with and that you wish to make clear by saying so a disclaimer in the publication of the research - I assume some kind of publication will come out of your research.

Having said that, I don’t know whether GCHQ/NSA would allow that, even though it seems eminently fair on ethical grounds, as it would set some kind of precedent. It would be worth finding out whether this has ever been done. I don’t know how one would begin to find this out. Perhaps by talking to them or by talking to some body with a professional interest in ethics in the sciences - is there one?

Taking the money, but placing a disclaimer in it is publicly and usefully expressing your anger at this particular activity to the mathematical public. Crucially, the public that will or won’t be affected by your decision isn’t the larger public, the public that a newspaper article is aimed at, but a much smaller one. If the main consideration of not taking the money is to advertise your disapproval of mass surveillance this might be the more effective means of doing so. Especially if its never been done before. It may even embolden others to ask, whereas they might not be so bold to think of refusing funding - thinking its going to hurt them more than hurt the NSA.

It might be worth considering that if you also go down this route, and GCHQ/NSA put up a fight its worth documenting in detail what happens so one can publish an article for the general public. This of course helps advertise some of the anxiety & anger that concerned members of the mathematical community feels to a much broader & larger public. After all the main concern of taking the funding is how it will be perceived by colleagues, the mathematical community, and the larger public: Is it endorsing the mass surveillance carried out by the NSA, will it make you look hypocritical? It might be then worth talking to a journalist to see whether this could have some traction.

Posted by: mozibur ullah on February 13, 2014 10:22 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Deteriorating Relationship Between Academics and the NSA

A very heartfelt thanks to all you who have been willing to comment here. I’m glad that a range of opinions are presented. I really like some of the ideas for speaking out, and will definitely not be silent either way. If nothing else this has forced me to confront some ethical questions from a less comfortable position than my usual armchair, and that is good.

For now: option three for a little longer (there is nothing to sign yet). Meanwhile as an inveterate optimist I can’t help looking for a little more good news! Here’s hoping.

Posted by: stefan on February 16, 2014 2:55 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Deteriorating Relationship Between Academics and the NSA

Stefan: Thanks for this courageous openess.

The discussion reminds me of the one a couple of years ago about the ethics of taking money from the Templeton foundation. By taking money, one could be considered to support the mixing science and religion. Maybe the arguments from that discussion can help.

There were certainly a number of people who said something along the lines of “I happily take anyone’s money, because if I don’t then they might do something worse with it.” (quoted above).

Posted by: Bas Spitters on February 19, 2014 9:38 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Deteriorating Relationship Between Academics and the NSA

The relationship between the NSA and Glasgow academics may be about to deteriorate a little further. I’m proud to say that the University of Glasgow — two minutes from my front door and until recently my workplace — has just elected Edward Snowden as its rector.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on February 18, 2014 11:16 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Deteriorating Relationship Between Academics and the NSA

I was about to ask about the “until recently my workplace” and then remembered you said something somewhere about being on strike. Any comment on what’s going on?

Posted by: Todd Trimble on February 19, 2014 1:41 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Deteriorating Relationship Between Academics and the NSA

Nothing that dramatic, just that I moved jobs a year or so ago, from the University of Glasgow to the University of Edinburgh. I haven’t moved home though, so where I live is very convenient for my old job but not my new one.

It’s true, there is a national university strike going on. So far it’s been in the form of days here and there (which I’ve joined in with) and also two-hour periods here and there (which I’ve ignored: my support for the strike was already wavering, and this seems a particularly ineffective way of doing it). What often happens during UK strikes is that there’s a series of one-day stoppages early in the year, but it’s not until exam-marking period that we really have the power to do anything that anyone notices — namely, refusing to mark. That’s probably coming.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on February 19, 2014 2:46 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: The Deteriorating Relationship Between Academics and the NSA

Oh, right, you work at U. Edinburgh now; sorry, I was momentarily confused. But thanks for the additional info!

Posted by: Todd Trimble on February 19, 2014 3:11 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

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