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April 27, 2014

New Scientist Article

Posted by Tom Leinster

I’ve got a full-page opinion piece in this week’s New Scientist, on why mathematicians should refuse to cooperate with agencies of mass surveillance. If you’re in the US, UK or Australia, it’s the print edition that came out yesterday.

Thumbnail of New Scientist article

The substance is much the same as my piece for the London Mathematical Society Newsletter, but it’s longer, and it’s adapted for a US readership too.

I don’t currently have much to add to the article or what I wrote about mathematicians and the secret services previously. But I do have some observations to make about the process of writing for New Scientist.

This was my first time writing for a magazine. The article received substantial edits from at least three editors; you can compare it with the version I originally submitted. I have mixed feelings about this process.

On the one hand, it’s great to have the input of experienced magazine journalists, and I can definitely see ways that they improved what I wrote. On the other hand — and despite the editors I dealt with being reasonable, helpful, and pleasant — I found the process pretty frustrating. I think that’s because of where the control lies.

What doesn’t happen is that you submit your piece, the editors read it and give you their critiques, and then you amend your article accordingly. What does happen is that you submit something, the editors change it how they like, and if you don’t like any of their changes, you have to argue for why it should be changed back. This process may be iterated several times, perhaps with different editors with different opinions. Rationally, I know that the article goes out not only under my name but also under the magazine’s, but by the end of the process, I did have the depressing feeling that the article wasn’t entirely mine.

(Small example: there were three words that I disliked and repeatedly removed from the editor’s edits: “moral”, “snoop” and “spook”. The editors I dealt with directly respected my wish to avoid them, after I’d made the case. But in the online version, the headline and the standfirst — which I neither wrote nor saw before publication — managed to use two out of those three words.)

Anyway, it was a new experience.

Comments are open. As ever, if you’re leaving comments on the political aspects, please keep them focused on the relationship between mathematicians and the secret services.


Update   Here’s a list of the various press articles that followed on from my original article:

Posted at April 27, 2014 5:19 AM UTC

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15 Comments & 0 Trackbacks

Re: New Scientist Article

Tom,

your begins with ” … These organisations stand accused of law-breaking on an industrial scale and are now the object of widespread outrage”.

But actually I am surprised how little outrage there is/was in UK and US. Why do you think this is? In my opinion, understanding the widespread complacency about privacy violation(s) would be quite important if one wants to change anything in this area …

Posted by: wolfgang on April 27, 2014 6:19 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: New Scientist Article

Ordinary honest folk like a bit of privacy but are mostly interested in security. In many circumstances security and privacy are opposites. For example the people who really care about privacy are criminals, and people pushing the limits of what’s legal who don’t want too much scrutiny (like maybe the entire finance industry). What we need to do is convince people that the greatest threat to their security is their own governments drifting in a 1984/North Korea direction. We need to counter that with much more accountability and sousveillance (see David Brin).

Posted by: Robert Smart on April 27, 2014 9:01 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: New Scientist Article

… the people who really care about privacy are criminals, and people pushing the limits of what’s legal who don’t want too much scrutiny…

Did you mean to say that?

Posted by: Eugene Lerman on April 27, 2014 9:58 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: New Scientist Article

I didn’t mean to suggest that there aren’t other people genuinely interested in privacy, such as those struggling against unjust government/officaldom. My reply was just in response to the question “why are we so complacent”. I agree with David Brin that privacy isn’t coming back (till we start living off this planet) and we need more transparency. His book “The Transparent Society” was quite prescient.

Posted by: Robert Smart on April 27, 2014 10:44 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: New Scientist Article

The New Scientist article is currently featured on the front page of Slashdot. Welcome, Slashdot visitors!

Posted by: Tom Leinster on April 27, 2014 11:46 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: New Scientist Article

Ah, but /. didn’t link here, just to the New Scientist piece.

Posted by: David Roberts on April 28, 2014 2:58 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: New Scientist Article

Your piece was syndicated to Slate

Posted by: David Roberts on April 28, 2014 3:01 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: New Scientist Article

Wow. Thanks for telling me; no one else did!

Posted by: Tom Leinster on April 28, 2014 6:41 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: New Scientist Article

Tom’s New Scientist article was picked up by the French online newspaper Mediapart.

Mediapart, which accepts no advertising, became famous by exposing a series of political scandals in France. Publication is supported by online subscriptions and the article appears to be behind a paywall. There is a mathematical connection: Michel Broué is the president of the Société des Amis de Mediapart (to which I belong). I will send Tom a pdf and he can presumably make it available to readers of the n-category café. (Here it is — TL.)

Posted by: Michael Harris on April 28, 2014 4:41 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: New Scientist Article

Thanks very much for letting me know.

Here’s a quick translation:


A mathematician calls on his colleagues not to work for the NSA any more [but see my note 1 below]

Tom Leinster, of the University of Edinburgh, calls on his colleagues worldwide to boycott the NSA and refuse to work with the agency while it continues its global spying programme [note 2].

In an opinion piece published on the website of New Scientist, Tom Leinster, a mathematician at the University of Edinburgh, calls on his colleagues worldwide to boycott the NSA and refuse to work with the agency while it continues its global spying programme.

Tom Leinster notes that the American agency is “the largest employer of mathematicians in the US”, maybe the world. Mathematicians are essential to the development of the different surveillance programmes developed by the NSA, notably those concerning cryptography.

“At a bare minimum, we mathematicians should talk about this. Maybe we should go further. Eminent mathematician Alexander Beilinson of the University of Chicago has proposed that the American Mathematical Society sever all ties with the NSA, and that working for it or its partners should become ‘socially unacceptable’ in the same way that working for the KGB became unacceptable to many in the Soviet Union.”


I want to clarify two things about that summary.

[1] I don’t actually call for mathematicians not to work for the NSA (at least, not in this article). I list various dubious things that the NSA and GCHQ are doing, I say something about the role played by mathematicians, and I emphasize that we have the power to choose not to cooperate, if we so wish. But that’s as far as I go in this article. It’s actually rather cautious and conservative.

[2] The Mediapart summary uses the phrase “espionnage mondial”, which I assume translates as global/worldwide spying. I think that’s a slightly risky way of putting it. Pretty much everyone, including me, agrees that spying on targeted individuals is acceptable under certain circumstances. In that sense, it’s unobjectionable that the US has a global spying programme. The problem is the nature of its global spying programme — that it aspires to collect all communications of all people, not just those of a few justified targets at specific times.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on April 28, 2014 5:44 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: New Scientist Article

By now it also made it to the German newspaper Zeit Online, nicely illustrated by Banksy graffiti ;)

If you would like to see a translation, just let me know. Would it be a violation of copyright to post a translation here?

Posted by: Tobias Fritz on April 28, 2014 8:26 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: New Scientist Article

Thanks! Personally, I got a kind German colleague down the corridor to translate it for me, but I don’t suppose the Zeit lawyers will descend on us if you feel like posting a translation here. (And if they do, we can simply remove it.)

There’s now also a Spiegel article and an article in Boing Boing.

I suppose I should have seen this coming, but most of these articles exaggerate my views in one way or another. E.g. Boing Boing headline it with “Mathematicians: refuse to work for the NSA!”, which is exciting but not what I say.

Similarly, some commenters on some of the articles object to the “fact” that I ask national mathematical societies to expel members who work for the NSA/GCHQ. Only, I don’t say that. I simply observe that the societies could do that (if they wanted), just as they can (if they want) cooperate unquestioningly with the secret services. The choices are ours to make.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on April 28, 2014 9:15 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: New Scientist Article

So here’s my (probably mediocre) translation of the Zeit piece, including the original links. By the way, the readers’ comments below the article are mostly positive, although many also question the impact that this is going to have.

Mathematician calls to boycott of secret services

The NSA is the biggest employer for mathematicians in the United States. A Brit now wants to persuade his scientific colleagues to stop working for secret services.

What can be done in order to make surveillance of the world more difficult? Encrypt everything, say the techies. Pass new laws and treaties, say politicians. Cut off the NSA’s water supply, says Marc Roberts.

Without water, the NSA will not be able to run its gigantic new data processing center near Bluffdale in Utah. The secret service needs up to 1.7 million gallons a day. Marc Roberts, a member of parliament in Utah’s House of Representatives, has picked up on a proposal of activists and introduced a draft law that would prohibit anyone to provide material supplies to the NSA — including water. However, it is unlikely that his draft will turn into law.

The mathematician Tom Leinster has a different proposal for how to draw off an important resource from the NSA: its employees. Besides money, technology, electricity and water, the secret service also needs suitable personnel. By their own account, the NSA is the biggest employer for mathematicians in the United States.

Leinster, mathematician at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, now calls upon his colleagues in the New Scientist magazine to not work for the NSA or the British secret service GCHQ. Universities could forbid their employees to work there. The mathematical societies could cease to publish job advertisements by the secret services, reject their funding, or even evict those among their members that work for the NSA or GCHQ.

“Mathematicians are rarely confronted with ethical questions”, Leinster writes. “We enjoy the feeling that everything that we do is decoupled from the real world.” But [according to Leinster], the NSA revelations showed that secret services have undermined Internet encryption. And for this, they needed mathematicians.

His profession [guild] is already unpopular anyways, Leinster writes, since mathematicians were seen as partly responsible for the financial crisis. Now it is time to at least talk about the choices that are available: “We are primarily human beings, and then mathematicians. And if we don’t like what secret services do, then we should not cooperate with them.”

[This translation contains a pass-the-message game: I retranslated Tom’s quotes back into English!]

Posted by: Tobias Fritz on April 29, 2014 3:03 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: New Scientist Article

Thanks a lot.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on April 30, 2014 8:34 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: New Scientist Article

Great article.

Posted by: Bruce Bartlett on May 3, 2014 11:52 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

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