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March 2, 2014

Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

Posted by Tom Leinster

I’ve just submitted a piece for the new Opinions section of the monthly LMS Newsletter: Should mathematicians cooperate with GCHQ? (Update: now available (p.34).) The LMS is the London Mathematical Society, which is the UK’s national mathematical society. My piece should appear in the April edition of the newsletter, and you can read it below.

Here’s the story. Since November, I’ve been corresponding with people at the LMS, trying to find out what connections there are between it and GCHQ. Getting the answer took nearly three months and a fair bit of pushing. In the process, I made some criticisms of the LMS’s total silence over the GCHQ/NSA scandal:

GCHQ is a major employer of mathematicians in the UK. The NSA is said to be the largest employer of mathematicians in the world. If there had been a major scandal at the heart of the largest publishing houses in the world, unfolding constantly over the last eight months, wouldn’t you expect it to feature prominently in every issue of the Society of Publishers’ newsletter?

To its credit, the LMS responded by inviting me to write an inaugural piece for a new Opinions section of the newsletter. Here it is.

Should mathematicians cooperate with GCHQ?

Tom Leinster

One of the UK’s largest employers of mathematicians has been embroiled in a major international scandal for the last nine months, stands accused of law-breaking on an industrial scale, and is now the object of widespread outrage. How has the mathematical community responded? Largely by ignoring it.

GCHQ and its partners have been systematically monitoring as much of our lives as they possibly can, including our emails, phone calls, text messages, bank transactions, web browsing, Skype calls, and physical location. The goal: “collect it all”. They tap internet trunk cables, bug charities and political leaders, disrupt lawful activist groups, and conduct economic espionage, all under the banner of national security.

Perhaps most pertinently to mathematicians, the NSA (GCHQ’s major partner and partial funder) has deliberately undermined internet encryption, inserting a secret back door into a standard elliptic curve algorithm. This can be exploited by anyone sufficiently skilled and malicious — not only the NSA/GCHQ. (See Thomas Hales’s piece in February’s Notices of the AMS.) We may never know what else mathematicians have been complicit in; GCHQ’s policy is not to comment on intelligence matters, which is to say, anything it does.

Indifference to mass surveillance rests partly on misconceptions such as “it’s only metadata”. This is certainly false; for instance, GCHQ has used webcams to collect images, many sexually intimate, of millions of ordinary citizens. It is also misguided, even according to the NSA’s former legal counsel: “metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody’s life”.

Some claim to be unbothered by the recording of their daily activities, confident that no one will examine their records. They may be right. But even if you feel that way, do you want the secret services to possess such a powerful tool for chilling dissent, activism, and even journalism? Do you trust an organization operating in secret, and subject to only “light oversight” (a GCHQ lawyer’s words), never to abuse that power?

Mathematicians seldom have to face ethical questions. But now we must decide: cooperate with GCHQ or not? It has been suggested that mathematicians today are in the same position as nuclear physicists in the 1940s. However, the physicists knew they were building a bomb, whereas mathematicians working for GCHQ may have little idea how their work will be used. Colleagues who have helped GCHQ in the past, trusting that they were contributing to legitimate national security, may justifiably feel betrayed.

At a bare minimum, we as a community should talk about it. Sasha Beilinson has proposed that working for the NSA/GCHQ should be made “socially unacceptable”. Not everyone will agree, but it reminds us that we have both individual choice and collective power. Individuals can withdraw their labour from GCHQ. Heads of department can refuse staff leave to work for GCHQ. The LMS can refuse GCHQ’s money.

At a bare minimum, let us acknowledge that the choices are ours to make. We are human beings before we are mathematicians, and if we do not like what GCHQ is doing, we do not have to cooperate.

I had a 500-word limit, so I omitted a lot. Here are the facts on the LMS’s links with GCHQ, as stated to me by the LMS President Terry Lyons:

The Society has an indirect relationship with GCHQ via a funding agreement with the Heilbronn Institute, in which the Institute will give up to £20,000 per year to the Society. This is approximately 0.7% of our total income. This is a recently made agreement and the funding will contribute directly to the LMS-CMI Research Schools, providing valuable intensive training for early career mathematicians. GCHQ is not involved in the choice of topics covered by the Research Schools.

So, GCHQ’s financial support for the LMS is small enough that declining it would not make a major financial impact.

I hope the LMS will make a public statement clarifying its relationship with GCHQ. I see no argument against transparency.

Another significant factor (which Lyons alludes to above and is already a matter of public record) is that GCHQ is a funder of the Heilbronn Institute, which is a collaboration between GCHQ and the University of Bristol. I don’t know that the LMS is involved with Heilbronn beyond what’s mentioned above, but Heilbronn does seem to provide an important channel through which (some!) British mathematicians support the secret services.

Finally, I want to make clear that although I think there are some problems with the LMS as an institution, I don’t blame the people running it, many of whom are taking time out of extremely busy schedules for the most altruistic reasons. As I wrote to one of them:

I’m genuinely in awe of the amount that you […] give to the mathematical community, both in terms of your selflessness and your energy. I don’t know how you do it. Anything critical I have to say is said with that admiration as the backdrop, and I hope I’d never say anything of the form “do more!”, because to ask that would be ridiculous.

Rules for commenting here  I’ve now written several posts on this and related subjects (1, 2, 3, 4). Every time, I’ve deleted some off-topic comments — including some I’ve enjoyed and agreed with heartily. Please keep comments on-topic. In case there’s any doubt, the topic is the relationship between mathematicians and the secret services. Comments that stray too far from this will be deleted.

Posted at March 2, 2014 7:09 PM UTC

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45 Comments & 1 Trackback

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

The public perception in the UK of mathematics and mathematicians is already distorted, but it may be a factor affecting recruitment into mathematics at every level. If individual mathematicians do not respond to this challenge, but leave matters by default to others, e.g. university administrators, much damage may result.

Posted by: Gavin Wraith on March 3, 2014 10:06 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

That’s a good point. The general public already has no idea what research mathematicians do. Perceptions are largely shaped by the applications of mathematics: engineering, computing, and so on. Our image has already taken a battering from the financial meltdowns of the last five or so years, but as the application of mathematics to mass surveillance becomes more and more well-known, the public will like us less and less.

To put it more viscerally: there’s now a large number of people who hate GCHQ and its partners — really, seriously, loathe them. These are among the largest employers of mathematicians in the world. The mathematical community is tin-eared if it doesn’t notice this.

In the same way, we’re hypocritical if we go on trumpeting the application of mathematics to internet encryption without also acknowledging the application of mathematics to undermining internet encryption.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on March 3, 2014 11:29 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

To put it more viscerally: there’s now a large number of people who hate GCHQ and its partners — really, seriously, loathe them.

There is one thing about this that makes me very uneasy: the public, by and large, aren’t opposed to what’s been going on. The American people voted for the people who voted in favour of the Patriot Act, and continued to vote for them as they extend it twice. We aren’t seeing major public demonstrations like there were in the UK for the Iraq war (or for that matter, like there are in the USA opposing healthcare). And the same students at Glasgow who were actively campaigning for Snowden are quite happy with the University’s links with the company providing the database system that’s used by the police to hold details about protesters and people who have not charged with a crime. So is it that the public still isn’t understanding the issue, despite the daily news coverage, or do they know and just not care? I’d like to think it’s the former, but I worry that it’s the latter.

And if mass surveillance is what the people want, is it really appropriate for a small group (many of whom, myself included, are taxpayer-funded) to try to obstruct the democratic process? I wasn’t happy when a small number of bankers were able to do that, and I wasn’t happy when the tube train drivers tried it. Is this different because we know we’re morally right, whereas the bankers and train drivers only think that they’re morally right?

Posted by: Ciaran McCreesh on March 3, 2014 7:15 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

Withholding one’s labour on moral grounds is not an obstruction of the democratic process. It is a personal decision, and we are all responsible for the product of our labour, legal or otherwise, democratically mandated or not.

With regards to the LMS, it is true that we should take more care before taking action in relation to GCHQ ties. But ultimately the LMS should be answerable to its members not the general public. It’s members are best placed to decide how to serve the public.

Posted by: James Griffin on March 3, 2014 9:38 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

I had the same thought as James: no one’s trying to obstruct the democratic process. Being taxpayer-funded doesn’t oblige you to go along with everything that the government of the day wants you to go along with. Indeed, one might argue that dissent is a traditional and expected role of academics.

Ciaran wrote:

There is one thing about this that makes me very uneasy: the public, by and large, aren’t opposed to what’s been going on.

I’m not sure that’s exactly true. I think the public, by and large, aren’t enormously aware of what’s been going on. In Britan, the major news media is disturbingly quiet on this (certainly by comparison with the US media). One can speculate on why. For example, one might point to (i) the unusual place of the Guardian within the print media, and (ii) the post-Iraq timorousness of the BBC in challenging the government. The Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, reflects here on British complacency over surveillance.

There seems to be decent evidence that as the public learns more about what’s been going on, they get less happy with it. (See here, for instance, and various opinion polls that I’m too lazy to look up right now.)

It’s not surprising that it takes time. I’d view it as part of a process: the highly technical documents are leaked, they’re passed to journalists who have to spend a lot of time understanding and interpreting them, the stories are written in the press, those stories are read by us, the public, and then we have to come to our own understanding of the implications for us.

Moreover, grasping some of the implications is most easily done if you have a technical kind of mind. (For instance, I bet readers grasp the power of email metadata rather quickly.) And that excludes some people.

But then there’s the selfish reason not to be bothered, which I addressed in this paragraph:

Some claim to be unbothered by the recording of their daily activities, confident that no one will examine their records. They may be right. But even if you feel that way, do you want the secret services to possess such a powerful tool for chilling dissent, activism, and even journalism? Do you trust an organization operating in secret, and subject to only “light oversight” (a GCHQ lawyer’s words), never to abuse that power?

I guess it’s true: the large majority of people will never have their records pored over by an actual live spook. In that sense, an “I’m all right, Jack” attitude is justified. It doesn’t take much thought to realize that even if you’re not directly targeted, the effect of mass surveillance on the society you live in might be against your interests. But again, this point may take a while to be properly appreciated.

The existence of mass surveillance is a big social change, so big that it’s hard to understand all its implications.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on March 4, 2014 1:08 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

Is the lack of appreciation for these issues due to a lack of understanding of statistics? Both Schneier (Base rate fallacy ) and Doctorow (False positives) have some simple, but compelling, arguments. I wonder whether the NSA and GCHQ train there people on the Prosecutor’s Fallacy.

I imagine there is a more detailed statistical analysis available somewhere, but I could not find it.

Posted by: Bas Spitters on March 4, 2014 10:13 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

Thanks so much Tom for writing this! I don’t have much to add, or time to do so at the moment, but lately I’ve been looking for constructive ideas about how to move forward. Bruce Schneier has a good opinion piece at CNN, posted a few days ago. (It is also posted on his blog Schneier on Security.)

I think Schneier’s thinking is relevant and important. Intelligence services have evolved to be an organ of human society, along with police and standing armies. I think a nice analogy is to be made with the mammalian immune system (and all the ways it can go wrong and harm the body it serves!) So it is time for cultural evolution to make a move, and mathematicians and friends ought to be a part of that process by contributing new ideas.

I have hopes for my combinatorial work to someday have applications to gene therapy–but maybe I ought to spend some time focusing on the larger human network and how best to arrange it. Since I have no brilliant insights at the moment, though, here is another good article: George Dyson at Edge.org. It’s mostly a warning of how even good intentions of intelligence services can go wrong, but there are hints of a way forward via transparency.

Posted by: stefan on March 3, 2014 3:03 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

I clicked on that George Dyson link, saw the photo of him, and immediately said to myself “that’s Freeman Dyson!” Turns out that George (who I don’t think I’d heard of) is Freeman’s son. But wow, what a resemblance.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on March 3, 2014 4:11 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

Indeed: right down to the way they part their hair.

The most salient feature of Freeman Dyson would have to be that remarkable nose. Apparently it’s a fact that noses (and ears too) continue to grow as a person ages, and Freeman Dyson (who is somewhat slight of build as it is) by now looks positively weighted down by it. But even as a young man he had quite an impressive schnoz, and his son looks like he inherited that gene.

(Sorry for the off-topic comment!)

Posted by: Todd Trimble on March 3, 2014 5:50 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

(Sorry for the off-topic comment!)

Not at all — I started it. As I’ve said before (somewhere or other), I’m quite in favour of a bit of friendly chatter on this blog. Plus, it was worth it for the phrase “impressive schnoz”.

What I want to avoid is political discussion that’s not directly related to the topic at hand. That’s partly out of respect for the parameters of this blog, and partly because I’m simply not up for moderating such a discussion.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on March 3, 2014 6:05 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

Ah, so that’s the relation! Also, after reading George Dyson’s piece again I see that he brought up the analogy of an autoimmune disease in the comments section–I probably picked it up there when I read it the first time and internalized it. His other comments are good as well.

After publishing my piece in the AMS Notices, I got several nice letters. One of them expressed the opinion that the way to heal the intelligence services was to put lots more mathematicians (and other sorts of scientists) into the decision-making roles as opposed to mainly the modelling and programming roles. Perhaps this is too simplistic–I don’t pretend that any group is necessarily better at tough ethical choices like “do we ask for secret permission to tap that wire to try and catch a bomb plot, or will the long-term consequences of invading privacy outweigh the small chance that this is the time we prevent an attack.”

However, there might be something to it, working from an analogy of marrow transplants helping to prevent or halt full-blown leukemia.

Posted by: stefan on March 3, 2014 5:57 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

I like the analogy with the immune system, and autoimmune diseases, too. I wonder how far it can be pushed.

Did your correspondent say why they thought that putting more mathematicians into decision-making roles would be a good idea? I have to say, I’m sceptical.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on March 3, 2014 6:03 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

Well, I’m sure your skepticism (even if spelled the British way) is well founded in the universality of human nature. My correspondent hoped that people trained to solve problems within constraints might make valuable contributions missed by traditional military/political leaders. But he admitted that he could not guarantee any additional altruism. Schneier’s ideas are more practical, although it might not hurt to use some of both.

Posted by: stefan on March 3, 2014 9:48 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

In a country where there are CCTV cameras literally everywhere, right down to the cheese-monger’s stall at the market, “it’s only metadata” seems like a perfectly rational response.

By contrast, it seems a little quixotic to get all exercised about the mass-surveillance you just found out about, whilst remaining blasé about the (even more invasive) mass surveillance you’ve known about all along.

Posted by: Jacques Distler on March 4, 2014 8:43 AM | Permalink | PGP Sig | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

I wouldn’t say quixotic, but yup: I think you’ve put your finger on one of the reasons why the reaction in the British public has been so muted. It’s like boiling a frog. I believe we’ve got more CCTV cameras than any other country in the world (by some measure of “more”).

But an important difference is pointed out in Dyson’s article, mentioned above by Stefan. CCTV monitoring is explicitly regulated by laws that were made in open court, are enforced in open court, and can be challenged in open court. GCHQ/NSA’s monitoring is done entirely in secret. We’re not even told what type of monitoring they’re doing (phone, email, etc.), let alone who has the data, how long they can keep it for, and what they’re doing with it.

There are groups in the UK that have been campaigning against mass CCTV coverage for years. And now we know about the security services’ zeal for collecting data on the population at large, the case of those groups is strengthened: it seems very likely that GCHQ and co are systematically using CCTV data in ways that haven’t been approved in the open.

People from other European countries think it’s funny that we accept all those CCTV cameras but were highly suspicious of (and fought successfully against) the introduction of national ID cards. They’ve carried ID cards all their lives, so think nothing of it.

Once upon a time, a PhD student of mine failed to turn up for a scheduled meeting. It turned out that he had a good excuse: having been arrested on an anti-ID-card protest, he was in a police cell at the time.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on March 4, 2014 10:28 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

I’d hazard a guess that its not just CCTV saturation but also the ubiquity of facebook, twitter and social media that makes self-advertisement so pervasive that one can find out much more than one could about someone even ten years ago makes the man on the street think it isn’t surprising that GCHQ have harnessed the technology to eavesdrop on us on an industrial scale.

Posted by: mozibur ullah on March 5, 2014 12:04 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

I agree, I think that has changed people’s attitudes. But I’m not sure it’s been recognized widely enough what important differences there are between social media corporations and governments.

First, social media is voluntary. You don’t have to have a Facebook account or a Twitter account or a blog. You don’t have to use search engines that store information about you. Even though companies such as Facebook make it hard, you can influence what information about yourself you reveal.

Second, corporations don’t command physical force in the same way that states do. They’re certainly powerful and closely intertwined with governments; but unlike governments, they don’t have the direct power to arrest you, imprison you, detain you at borders, or kill you.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on March 6, 2014 12:08 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

Corporations may not directly detain or kill you, but they do things like control access to how much they charge for insurance, on whether you can get employment etc. In many countries they also act as gateways to health care and education, although in the UK the government takes on those responsibilities.

Furthermore you say that one doesn’t have to engage with facebook or twitter or whatever, but if a large enough proportion of people do use these services than absence of data can be used to draw inferences about you.

You have rightly raised the question of whether the general public understand the issues well enough to get upset by them. This is also an ethical issue for mathematicians - is there an ethical duty to make the intellectual tools for comprehending the issues more widely accessible. Where are the modern equivalents to ‘How to Lie with Statistics’ in which a journalist made mathematical survival skills widely available?

I want to applaud you, Tom, for raising appropriate issues, even if you don’t feel equipped to moderate the debate very comfortably.

I have found that the blog http://www.mathbabe.org/ by Cathy O’Neil has educated me about these issues. Her progress from number theorist, via financial quant to ‘occupy’ activist places her at the intersection of mathematics, politics, ethics and computer science.

Posted by: Roger Witte on March 16, 2014 12:18 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

Great article, Tom! Just one minor comment:

Mathematicians seldom have to face ethical questions.

If this is because mathematicians choose to work on self-contained formal games that are too removed from reality to raise any ethical questions, then I’d argue the overwhelming ethical question they have to face is why they’re deciding to spend their lives on this.

If instead it’s because mathematics is so virtuous a pursuit that mathematicians rarely need to question their decisions, then… wow, my life just got a lot easier.

Sorry for the sarcasm, which is not directed at you, just any mathematicians out there who feel they’ve cleverly managed to transcend the usual dilemma of how to live a good life. Perhaps when you said mathematicians seldom “have to” face ethical questions, you meant they’re usually able to weasel their way out. That may be true.

Posted by: John Baez on March 5, 2014 12:54 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

Thanks. That’s a good point.

My article was primarily intended to be consciousness-raising. Although I state a lot of facts that people might find deeply shocking, what I actually call for is really mild. It’s no more than “let’s talk about it, and let’s realize we have a choice”. You can easily guess that I’d also be in favour of much stronger actions, but as this comes after nine months of zero reaction to the scandal from the LMS, I thought it best to start at the beginning.

In particular, I was well aware that when I wrote “now we must decide” (to cooperate with GCHQ or not), the “must” was kind of pushy. Imagine a head of department who’s asked by a member of faculty for a couple of months off in the summer to work for GCHQ. The HoD might agree to it without even realizing that they’re making a decision; or they might think only about whether it’s OK in terms of staffing levels, not in terms of potential damage to society. I was trying to point out that it is a decision, an ethical decision, and one over which they have control. If you don’t think about your decisions, they’ll always be made in favour of the status quo. Desmond Tutu apparently said:

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.

(He also apparently said “When your dreams turn to dust, vacuum”, which is irrelevant but made me laugh.)

I’d view your point in the same way. Mathematicians (and indeed all people) face the ethical question of whether what they’re doing with their lives is beneficial and worthwhile. But they only “face” it in the general sense that the question exists and is pertinent — it’s rarely actually brought to their attention. I think it’s an excellent question.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on March 5, 2014 2:08 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

Before I went to university to study mathematics I’d read Hardys ‘A Mathematicians Apology’ which I found in my local library, and he makes exactly that argument, that mathematics by virtue of removal from the realities of real life, is an ideal object for disinterested contemplation. He compares it to painting and poetry for just that reason.

It made some impact on me before I realised that some of the people that I admired like Gandhi or Tagore were thoroughly engaged with the political and civil realities that they saw around them, and that was a powerful incentive to disengage with Hardys philosophy.

Posted by: mozibur ullah on April 5, 2014 1:22 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

I have a modest proposal that I hope is not too far off topic. Since GCHQ (and the NSA) want to vacume up and store all the information they can get their hands on, there is probably a lot of duplication. For example this comment may be stored at a machine at UT Austin but it also may end on some GCHQ server and/or an NSA server.

I think NSA and GCHQ should just offer a free combination of cloud storage, chats, social media, youtube and what not for anyone who wants it. Of course any US or British citizen who would not want to take advantage of such a generous offer would be considered disloyal and a bit suspicious.

Posted by: Eugene on March 7, 2014 9:07 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

Please forgive me for joining this discussion after it seems to have run its course. I only discovered Tom’s article yesterday, along with various exchanges on the topic since last November. I have a professional interest in the topic, a private opinion, and two questions.

The professional interest: A few days after Snowden’s revelations last June, Allyn Jackson and I had requested and obtained permission from the editor-in-chief of the AMS Notices to host a debate on NSA funding of mathematicians. While we were trying to figure out whom to invite and how to structure the debate, with a long pause for summer vacation, Stefan Forcey’s opinion piece arrived, followed in short order by Sasha Beilinson’s letter. Neither involved any effort on our part: the topic was obviously timely! We have spent the last few months soliciting and collecting articles, and the debate should be running in the not-too-distant future. More on this below.

Because I am co-hosting the debate, my private opinion will remain private for the moment, although those who know me shouldn’t find it hard to figure out.

The questions: One reason it is has taken so long to prepare this debate is that we have found no one willing to defend the NSA! And it’s not from lack of trying. Should we be surprised? Not everyone is in favor of severing ties, but given the number of mathematicians involved with the NSA and the massive material and media resources at the agency’s disposal, it’s striking that no one is willing to come out and say why its collaboration with mathematicians is so important. We are still soliciting opinions, and even after the debate’s first round we expect it will continue. Would any of you be interested in contributing an opinion? And if you are not willing to defend the NSA (or the GCHQ), can you encourage colleagues who might be sympathetic to the agency’s goals and methods to contact us?

Posted by: Michael Harris on March 20, 2014 11:19 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

No apologies necessary; it’s very interesting to hear about these developments.

I don’t personally know any mathematicians who’d defend those activities of the NSA and GCHQ that have recently come to light. If I were to look for such people in the UK, I might start with the Heilbronn Institute. Slightly to my surprise, their website lists some people who have worked with them: the current director, Geoffrey Robinson, their University of Bristol contact, Oliver Johnson, and some others:

The work of the Institute is managed by a Director and Associate Director, advised by Strategic Director Professor Trevor Wooley. The founding Director of the Heilbronn was Professor Elmer Rees and his successor was Professor Malcolm MacCallum.

Past and present contributors to the Institute’s work have included many distinguished mathematicians, such as Profs. Sir John Ball, Bryan Birch, Clifford Cocks, David Hand, Roger Heath-Brown, Christopher Hooley, Frank Kelly, James Norris, Michael Paterson, Tony Scholl, Nicholas Shepherd-Barron, Sir Martin Taylor and Dominic Welsh.

Of course, the fact that they’ve worked with GCHQ doesn’t mean they’re in favour of mass surveillance or any of the other controversial activities that we’ve learned about in the last nine months. Presumably most mathematicians who’ve worked for GCHQ had no idea all this was going on.

I guess you’ve already approached some of the mathematicians you know who’ve worked for the NSA/GCHQ; from that, I deduce that none of them are willing to defend them. That’s interesting…

Posted by: Tom Leinster on March 20, 2014 1:08 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

@ Michael Harris

When you say “we have found no one willing to defend the NSA!” do you mean that you contacted the NSA and they declined to participate? Or do you mean that you couldn’t find anyone not affiliated with the NSA who thought that NSA’s collection of data (a.k.a. spying) is justified under the circumstances and was willing to take that position publically?

Have you tried contacting Stephen L. Carter (http://www.law.yale.edu/faculty/SCarter.htm) ? He is not a mathematician but he has written extensively on the ethics of war and on professional responsibility. He may have an interesting point of view to contribute to such a debate.

Posted by: Eugene Lerman on March 20, 2014 4:53 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

It’s very interesting to see the names of so many number theorists, including some people I know well, on the Heilbronn Institute’s page. We have only contacted US-based mathematicians so far but it might not be a bad idea to look for defenders elsewhere.

We actually have contacted the NSA, and something may yet come of this, but I was referring to mathematicians, including some who have worked with the NSA. The agencies defend their activities by saying “if you only knew what I’m not allowed to tell you….” I don’t presume to know any mathematicians who are privy to classified information, but I find it surprising that no mathematicians seem willing to give the NSA the benefit of the doubt.

There’s another consideration: some mathematicians who might want to defend the NSA may have signed contracts forbidding them to discuss the NSA in public. We have heard that sort of thing more than once; I don’t understand why the NSA would want to go after someone who defends them without authorization, but there are many things I don’t understand.

As for contacting legal scholars or ethicists, no doubt they would have very interesting things to say, but for the moment we are trying to encourage debate among mathematicians.

By the way, please don’t be surprised if I am absent from this discussion for several days at a time. The free time I have to spend online is limited; I’m only speaking up now because the topic is so important.

Posted by: Michael Harris on March 21, 2014 8:23 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

I hope you’re not restricting your search to people who are willing to defend all the activities of the NSA. There’s a big gap between agreeing that the NSA has overstepped its bounds recently (as happens periodically with any agency of that sort) and thinking that academic mathematicians ought to repudiate it completely; I expect that there are a lot of people who fall in between. Me, for instance — although I have generally been trying to avoid these debates out of consideration for my personal time and sanity.

I’m not surprised, however, that you haven’t found anyone who wants to participate in a formal public debate on that side. One reason is probably that anyone who’s worked with the NSA and holds a security clearance has agreed that anything they write about the NSA publically has to undergo a “pre-publication review” to ensure that nothing classified is being revealed accidentally. This is certainly not the same as signing a contract forbidding them to discuss the NSA in public, but it’s an extra bureaucratic hoop that they would have to jump through. Another reason is that people who work with the NSA tend to be the sort who naturally keep a low profile; it’s better “operations security” not to make public even the fact that they know things they can’t tell you. And, I have to say that I suspect yet another reason is the overblown rhetoric of some people on the other side of the debate. If working for the NSA is going to be compared to working for the KGB, especially by older and established mathematicians who write recommendation letters and tenure reviews, then it’s not surprising if people who’ve done such work don’t want to come forward and say so publically.

What sort of structure are you planning for this debate? Will it be just a sequence of articles expressing individual opinions, or are you intending to include responses and rebuttals?

Posted by: Mike Shulman on March 24, 2014 5:54 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

If working for the NSA is going to be compared to working for the KGB, especially by older and established mathematicians who write recommendation letters and tenure reviews, then it’s not surprising if people who’ve done such work don’t want to come forward and say so publically.

I take your point that if you were a young mathematician hoping to get a recommendation letter from Sasha Beilinson, and you’d made a post-Snowden choice to work with the NSA, then you’d probably not want to let him know that. That would simply be a consequence of your choice.

You don’t quite say this, but I feel this getting close to the territory of “mathematicians shouldn’t express political opinions”. It’s easy for us not to most of the time, because there’s very little that we do that has real human consequences. But obviously Beilinson believes (as do I) that mathematicians do have real-world influence in this case; in fact, if I were a mathematician working for the NSA, I would want to believe that too.

yet another reason is the overblown rhetoric of some people on the other side of the debate.

Is that a reference to what Beilinson said about the KGB? It doesn’t bother me that you disagree with him, but it would bother me if you weren’t taking what he wrote seriously — if you thought it so “overblown” or “overwrought” as to be beyond the realm of reasonable consideration by anybody sensible. He added here:

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.

I guess you must see that he means it seriously.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on March 24, 2014 10:57 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

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.

I guess you must see that he means it seriously.

Forgive me if I have misunderstood how enlightened the Brezhnev regime actually was, but the fact that we’re able to have this conversation seems to refute that comparison.

Posted by: Tom Ellis on March 24, 2014 6:03 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

I suspect Sasha won’t turn up to explain exactly what he meant, and personally I don’t know enough about either the KGB or the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union to have an opinion either way.

All I wanted to point out is that Beilinson’s comparison of the NSA with the KGB should not be dismissed as a flourish of rhetoric. I see no evidence that it was meant as such; on the contrary, he has basically clarified that it was not meant as such. You can disagree with him, sure; but I think it would be patronizing to dismiss the comparison without serious reflection.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on March 24, 2014 6:21 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

I don’t think either of us wants to get drawn into a discussion about this, but let me just say that I respond to comparisons between the USA and the USSR, and comparisons between Wall Street and the Nazi party (which Beilinson made in the same comment) the way a mathematician reacts when hearing a long-standing open mathematical problem has been solved: whilst remaining open to being convinced I am deeply skeptical.

Posted by: Tom Ellis on March 24, 2014 6:40 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

I know personally something about the KGB and the Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, since this is where I grew up. Funny that with a fair amount of experience in common, Beilinson and I have a rather different view of the NSA. I think Beilinson is wrong in many ways.

In particular, his attack on the NSA distracts from the following basic question:

If we grant the NSA that its domestic spying program is essential for preventing terrorist attacks, should we still consent to it? In other words, what price liberty/privacy?

Car accidents kill thousands of people per year (about 34000 in US in 2012), but we don’t ban cars. If the price of a ban on domestic NSA servailance is a 100 deaths per year, is the price too high? Or is this about right?

Posted by: Eugene Lerman on March 24, 2014 8:24 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

Thanks for the comment, Eugene. It’s good to hear something said from experience.

You ask:

If we grant the NSA that its domestic spying program is essential for preventing terrorist attacks, should we still consent to it? In other words, what price liberty/privacy?

I agree that this is theoretically important. But I don’t think it’s practically important, because your question starts with such an enormous “If”. No evidence has been presented that mass domestic surveillance is effective at preventing terrorist attacks, let alone essential.

Here’s a good analysis of how politicians and government officials started repeating the line that NSA/GCHQ mass surveillance has thwarted 54 plotted attacks against the US.

Here’s the NSA chief, Keith Alexander, admitting that actually, only 13 of the alleged 54 had any connection with the US, and that of those, only one or two had used the mass phone data.

Here’s an explanation of one of those “one or two”: the NSA takes credit for arresting a Somali taxi driver for sending 8500 dollars to a charity allegedly connected to al-Shabaab. As the linked article puts it, “That is supposed to be worth rescinding the 4th Amendment.”

Here’s the ruling of US federal judge Richard Leon, citing (page 62) the

utter lack of evidence that a terrorist attack has ever been prevented because searching the NSA database was faster than other investigative tactics

— despite the government having had the opportunity to submit classified evidence to be taken into account in his ruling.

And finally, here’s an academic crypto/security expert explaining how, although the NSA’s capabilities for targetting individual users “scare the daylight out of me”, they provide a means for the NSA to gather legitimate intelligence without mass surveillance.

Eugene, you ask whether we should “consent” to the NSA’s domestic spying programme. I like the word “consent”, because it reminds us that the secret services are supposed to work for us, and be under some kind of democratic control. But I like the word “cooperate” even better, because it’s a bit more active, and because as mathematicians, we’re closer to the NSA (and GCHQ, etc.) than most people are. The mathematical community could, if it wanted to, make a significant difference to how the intelligence services operate.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on March 24, 2014 9:18 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

I agree that this is theoretically important. But I don’t think it’s practically important, because your question starts with such an enormous “If”.

I agree that it’s a big “if.” Perhaps I should have written “even if.” I don’t agree that it’s not practically important. Give it time and the NSA will get better at data mining and network analysis. Once it gets better, what’s the argument?

I would like to add that I do think that the people behind the NSA and the GCHQ total information awareness programs are sincere in their belief that what they are doing is right, proper and legal.

Posted by: Eugene Lerman on March 26, 2014 3:02 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

OK, I think we’re on the same page, then. “Theoretically important”, as I intended it, encompasses “practically important at some point in the future”. But the argument would have to be informed by how effective those future methods actually were, and at what cost. Is it “total security guaranteed, but video cameras in every room in your house”, or what? For the present, I’m not sure I accept the idea that there’s a balance between security and privacy; I’ve yet to be convinced that it corresponds to how things actually (currently) work.

For the purposes of this thread, though, I’m mostly interested in the perspective of a mathematician working for the NSA/GCHQ: say, one not senior enough to have much idea of how their work will be used. There, the question is much more blurry, because you simply don’t know how much your work will either benefit or hurt society. You have to trust the secret services a lot.

It may be that the NSA/GCHQ people behind the mass surveillance programmes sincerely believe that what they’re doing is right and proper. People believe all sorts of things.

Whether they believe it’s legal, I’m more sceptical about. Apart from the NSA’s admission of some “willful violations” by individuals (which they characterize as very rare, but who knows?), large-scale behaviour of the NSA was found to be unconstitutional by a FISA court judge back in October 2011. He also upbraided them for repeatedly lying to the courts about the scope of their surveillance. A cynic might conclude that they simply do whatever they think they can get away with.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on March 26, 2014 4:27 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

I don’t doubt that Beilinson means the comparison seriously, but I do find the comparison itself to be beyond the realm of reasonable consideration, based on even minimal historical information.

I certainly didn’t mean to imply anything about mathematicians not expressing political opinions!! I just meant to point out that the structure of academic hierarchy and promotion creates a bit of an echo chamber effect in the ivory tower.

Posted by: Mike Shulman on March 24, 2014 9:40 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

I hope you’re not restricting your search to people who are willing to defend all the activities of the NSA.

I’ll let Michael speak for himself, but I’d be astounded if he was doing that. Similarly, I’d be astounded if, when looking for contributors for the other side, he was restricting his search to people who disagree with all the activities of the NSA. I’ve read a lot of opinions on this, including many by people who get crudely characterized as “anti-NSA”, yet I’ve seen very, very few people express the opinion that countries shouldn’t be able to perform targeted surveillance on specific individuals when the circumstances merit it.

I’m not surprised, however, that you haven’t found anyone who wants to participate in a formal public debate on that side. One reason is probably that anyone who’s worked with the NSA and holds a security clearance …

Doesn’t it worry you that, apparently, the only mathematicians willing to defend the NSA are insiders? Doesn’t that suggest to you a lack of democratic support?

Posted by: Tom Leinster on March 24, 2014 12:27 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

One reason it may be hard to find someone who will defend the secret intelligence services is that no one who really knows what they do is allowed to talk about it. I believe there is some selection bias afoot here.

Just as a datapoint – lest it become believed that no one anywhere with any mathematical training would defend the NSA – I would like to say that, whilst I consider the NSA’s domestic data gathering to be the worst sort of violation of trust by a public body, I would be willing to defend the work of the NSA and other secret intelligence services in the general sense (albeit with the minimal knowledge about what they do).

(I am not however (any longer) a professional mathematician, nor was I ever one of much repute.)

Posted by: Tom Ellis on March 24, 2014 6:11 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

One reason it may be hard to find someone who will defend the secret intelligence services is that no one who really knows what they do is allowed to talk about it

That’s just not true. The very top US intelligence officials such as James Clapper and Keith Alexander make numerous public statements. Of course, you shouldn’t always believe them, but the idea that they’re obscure figures forbidden to speak about their work is simply false.

If you’re talking about mathematicians, it appears that there are no longer any of those near the top of the NSA. And according to Mike’s comment, they are allowed to talk about it; they just have to run it past the NSA first.

whilst I consider the NSA’s domestic data gathering to be the worst sort of violation of trust by a public body, I would be willing to defend the work of the NSA and other secret intelligence services in the general sense (albeit with the minimal knowledge about what they do).

Well, I’d be willing to defend some of what I assume is the NSA’s work — but as I just said, I think that’s true of the vast majority of people.

Let me bring this back to what Michael H actually wrote:

One reason it is has taken so long to prepare this debate is that we have found no one willing to defend the NSA! And it’s not from lack of trying. Should we be surprised? Not everyone is in favor of severing ties, but given the number of mathematicians involved with the NSA and the massive material and media resources at the agency’s disposal, it’s striking that no one is willing to come out and say why its collaboration with mathematicians is so important.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on March 24, 2014 6:46 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

OK, that context clarifies what we are talking about, thanks.

Given that context, let me therefore announce “I am a mathematician willing to defend the NSA”.

Posted by: Tom Ellis on March 24, 2014 6:50 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

Doesn’t it worry you that, apparently, the only mathematicians willing to defend the NSA are insiders?

It’s unclear to me what you mean by “defend” in this sentence. In the previous paragraph you said you’d be astounded if Michael was asking for someone to defend all of the NSA’s work, but in your next comment you said that you yourself would be willing to defend some of the NSA’s work. Michael also mentioned in his original comment that he is aware that “not everyone is in favor of severing ties”, and we have some other counterexamples speaking up in the comments right now. What sort of “defense” are you saying you think only insiders would be willing to put up?

If you’re talking about publically writing a defense of the NSA, then no, I don’t see why it should worry me at all. (Except for my separate worry that the debate will be distorted by only seeing one side presented publically.) There are many completely innocent and understandable reasons why someone who personally supports the NSA may not feel like writing a public defense of it. Perhaps the most basic one is the usual problem that distorts public discourse: people who have a grievance are louder than people who don’t. If someone thinks the NSA is basically okay (modulo some corrective action to scale back its overreaches), they just aren’t going to feel the same sort of fire about the issue as someone who believes the NSA is an affront to the basic ideals of a free society; and one needs a certain amount of fire as motivation to invest a substantial amount of time, energy, and reputation in writing such a public defense.

(As regards my first comment, Michael mentioned specifically that he was looking for some mathematicians who have worked with the NSA, so I thought it might be helpful to mention a couple of reasons that he might not be aware of to explain why he might have trouble recruiting such people specifically. I didn’t mean to imply that I thought those were the only population of mathematicians who would defend the NSA.)

Posted by: Mike Shulman on March 25, 2014 12:53 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

First of all, some good news: the day after I posted my comment, the NSA responded to our request with a couple of names of colleagues who might be willing to contribute to the debate. In fairness, I should mention that we had just renewed our request – but wouldn’t it be gratifying to believe that n-categories are the next frontier in encryption and surveillance?

To respond to Mike Shulman’s first comment, in fact we were aware that colleagues who have worked with the NSA have to clear bureaucratic obstacles; I used the word “forbidding” because, first, I’m always rushed when I post online and, second, the expression “pre-publication review” did not spontaneously come to mind, for whatever reason.

It’s understandable that people who grew up in the USSR will draw different lessons from their experience, but it’s no less understandable that people who have spent years living in the USA will draw different lessons from their experience.

But most importantly, we would be delighted if Tom Ellis and/or Mike Shulman were willing to contribute to the debate. Up to now we have only been contacting mathematicians who have direct experience with the issues raised by the debate, but the AMS Notices is an institution belonging to the mathematical community as a whole, and that community should be deciding the scope of the debate. Of course we are looking for a range of positions as representative as possible. And until the debate becomes predictable and repetitious, we should assume it will structure itself. (Can an n-category structure itself? An idle question.)

Posted by: Michael Harris on March 25, 2014 2:24 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

Hi Michael, feel free to contact me through my email address (linked below) or point me to your contact details somehow, and we can discuss things further.

Posted by: Tom Ellis on March 25, 2014 3:45 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

My piece has just appeared in the LMS newsletter. You can find it here on the LMS site for another month or so, and here on my own site permanently. It’s on page 34.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on March 26, 2014 6:41 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ?

Mike Shulman wrote:

“Perhaps the most basic one is the usual problem that distorts public discourse: people who have a grievance are louder than people who don’t. If someone thinks the NSA is basically okay (modulo some corrective action to scale back its overreaches), they just aren’t going to feel the same sort of fire about the issue as someone who believes the NSA is an affront to the basic ideals of a free society; and one needs a certain amount of fire as motivation to invest a substantial amount of time, energy, and reputation in writing such a public defense.”

I am not sure wether the drive to speak about working at secret services should be phrased as a “matter of investing a substantial amount of time, energy and reputation” if one for example looks at the case of the death of Gareth Williams.

Posted by: nad on April 8, 2014 10:35 AM | Permalink | Reply to this
Read the post Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ? Part 2
Weblog: The n-Category Café
Excerpt: Reply to Richard Pinch's article on GCHQ in the London Mathematical Society newsletter.
Tracked: May 13, 2014 3:11 PM

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