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April 30, 2014

Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ? Part 2

Posted by Tom Leinster

A month ago, the newsletter of the London Mathematical Society published an opinion piece of mine, Should mathematicians cooperate with GCHQ?. It has just published an opposing opinion by Richard Pinch, GCHQ’s Strategic Advisor for Mathematics Research and formerly a number theorist at Cambridge.

Pinch’s reply is short and curiously insubstantial. First he makes a couple of general assertions in opposition to what I wrote. But unlike my piece, which linked heavily to sources, he provides no evidence for his assertions. Nor does he dispute any of the specific facts stated in my article. Then he quotes a politician and the director of GCHQ saying that they believe GCHQ operates with integrity. And that’s it.

So it’s almost too flimsy to be worth answering. However, it’s probably worth rebutting even insubstantial arguments when they come from people in positions of influence. Here’s my rebuttal.

Richard Pinch writes:

Dr Leinster’s opinion piece makes a range of allegations of unethical and unlawful conduct against GCHQ.

Whether GCHQ’s conduct is unlawful is not something I’m qualified to judge, and I didn’t: I wrote that it was “accused of law-breaking on an industrial scale”. Some of those doing the accusing are very well-qualified to do so. E.g. here’s the opinion of a Queen’s Counsel (a high rank of lawyer in the British system) specializing in public law:

Then there’s European law:

And then there’s GCHQ’s own opinion:

This article describes GCHQ internal memos showing how it feared legal challenge in the European courts if the existence of its mass surveillance programmes became known. So even GCHQ was well aware that its methods were legally precarious, at the very least.

All these articles were linked to in my original piece.

Pinch continues:

The allegations are so widely drawn that it is impossible for GCHQ to recognise them as a description of its activities.

Snowden’s leaks provide detailed documentary evidence for my claims. Neither GCHQ nor the NSA has challenged their authenticity. For every allegation I made in my article, I linked to either the documents or journalism based on them. The leaked documents are available for anyone to read.

Pinch provides no evidence of any kind in his article. Nor does he deny any specific assertion that I made.

Continuing with Pinch’s article:

GCHQ, along with the other intelligence agencies of the UK, is subject to some of the most rigorous legislative and oversight arrangements in the world.

Compare the statement of one of GCHQ’s own lawyers:

“We have a light oversight regime compared with the US”.

(The legal loopholes that allow GCHQ to spy on the world. The Guardian, 21 June 2013.)

How rigorous is “light oversight […] compared with the US”? Well, the secret court that regulates the NSA (and to which the NSA has been legally found to have lied repeatedly) rejects just 1 in 3000 of the NSA’s surveillance requests. And GCHQ claims an oversight regime that’s even lighter.

It’s not just this one GCHQ lawyer who says that GCHQ is more weakly regulated than the NSA:

in the documents GCHQ describes Britain’s surveillance laws and regulatory regime as a “selling point” for the Americans.

(Exclusive: NSA pays 100m in secret funding for GCHQ. The Guardian, 1 August 2013.) Update: See also this comment below.

(Incidentally, it’s not clear whether GCHQ gets away with whole-population surveillance by being so weakly controlled that it can break the law with impunity, or by not needing to break the law because the law’s so weak. As I said, I’m not qualified to judge what’s legal, and actually, legality isn’t of primary interest to me — as we all know, laws can be arbitrary or wrong.)

Pinch continues:

These ensure that all the work of the agencies is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework so that their activities are at all times legal, authorised, necessary and proportionate.

Whether it’s legal, I’ve already discussed. As for “policy framework”: sure, presumably the vast surveillance programmes being run by GCHQ do fit into some internal policy framework, but it’s no kind of democratic policy. Obviously there was no public discussion, but far more radically, even a senior Member of Parliament on the UK National Security Council claims not to have known:

The rest of Pinch’s piece consists of pro-GCHQ quotes from the British Foreign Secretary and the Director of GCHQ. I could say pro-GCHQ things too; like just about everyone, I believe that some of what GCHQ does is worthwhile and justified. But that’s just opinion.

It’s the facts revealed by the Snowden papers that are so shocking. And when it comes to the facts, Pinch has disputed no factual statement about GCHQ made in my article, nor has he given us any reason to disbelieve the evidence before our eyes.

Posted at April 30, 2014 5:35 PM UTC

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17 Comments & 1 Trackback

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ? Part 2

In the state of California, a ridiculous number of laws are passed by ballot referendum, i.e., all registered voters in the state vote on them directly. I personally think this is a terrible system, but the state does a good job of providing voters with a lot of information to help make an informed decision. The literature from the state includes, among other things, statements from a supporter and a detractor of each ballot measure, along with the supporter’s and detractor’s rebuttals of each other’s statements. When I lived in California, I frequently found that the best way to decide how to vote was to identify the weaker rebuttal.

Posted by: Mark Meckes on April 30, 2014 8:17 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ? Part 2

Incidentally, certain turns of phrase in Richard Pinch’s letter strongly suggest that he’s not writing personally as a mathematician employed by GCHQ, but speaking officially for GCHQ. For instance:

it is impossible for GCHQ to recognise them as a description of its activities

and

GCHQ does not comment on intelligence matters, but would draw your readers’ attention to the comments of the Foreign Secretary

(my bold).

Of course, I’d expect an opinion piece about GCHQ by an employee of GCHQ to be vetted by GCHQ. But it’s noteworthy that it’s worded as an official statement, not a personal opinion.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on April 30, 2014 10:28 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ? Part 2

Perhaps I’m being too charitable, but I read that response from Pinch as the product of a conversation that went as follows:

“We need to put out an official response, otherwise it will look bad.”

“Fine. What do we say?”

“Doesn’t matter – just use the Yes, Minister playbook.”

“OK. Are you going to do it?”

“Christ, no. Get Richard to do it. He’s one of that lot, isn’t he? I’m sure he knows better than to actually say anything when he responds.”

Posted by: Yemon Choi on April 30, 2014 10:44 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ? Part 2

And, for that matter, part of Pinch’s article is — very nearly verbatim — the boilerplate response that GCHQ gives to all press articles about its activities. The statement that GCHQ’s work

is carried out in accordance with a strict legal and policy framework so that their activities are at all times legal, authorised, necessary and proportionate

can be found in dozens of news stories about different GCHQ revelations, e.g. here, here, here, here, here.

I find it slightly dishonest that Pinch’s piece is published in a “Member’s Opinions” section of the LMS newsletter, when it’s so clearly an official statement from an organization. I’d have had no objection if the LMS had published it as an official GCHQ statement — calling it what it is.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on May 1, 2014 3:53 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ? Part 2

Makes me angry.

Posted by: Bruce Bartlett on May 6, 2014 3:21 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ? Part 2

You wouldn't like me when I'm angry... because I always back up my rage with facts and documented sources --The Credible Hulk

Posted by: Tom Leinster on May 6, 2014 3:30 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ? Part 2

And now there’s a further answer to Richard Pinch’s assertion that

GCHQ, along with the other intelligence agencies of the UK, is subject to some of the most rigorous legislative and oversight arrangements in the world.

A committee of Members of Parliament (who usually try to outdo each other in sycophancy to the intelligence agencies) has just released a report into counterterrorism that sharply criticizes the weakness of the oversight system. Section 6 begins like this:

The oversight of the security and intelligence agencies has long been a matter of concern for this Committee … We believe that the current oversight is not fit for purpose.

Here are two press summaries of the report (1, 2), and here’s the report’s helpful Annex B, which compares the UK and US oversight systems.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on May 9, 2014 8:42 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ? Part 2

Out of curiousity I plotted the occurance of ‘mass surveillance’ on Googles ngram viewer using their corpus of books published in English; and interestingly enough there was a huge peak in the seventies about this - presumably this must have about the former Soviet Union as well as its satellite states. But since 2000, there has also been a sharp increase in incidence, but its still only about a third as high as the peak in the seventies.

Unfortunately the corpus only goes upto 2008. It would be interesting to see how this compares to looking at the internet at large - blogs, twitter & other social media. Is there a way to do that?

Avaaz, the global online advocacy group, has a couple of petitions about this (here and here), but they haven’t harvested much public support; I guess its just not capturing the publics imagination.

Posted by: mozibur ullah on May 10, 2014 12:04 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ? Part 2

This promises to be interesting: PBS Frontline documentary on the NSA; two part series starting 5/13.

On the subject of mathematicians and their cooperation: Thanks Tom. I think the continuation of global attention and criticism is a good thing, since if 1) mathematicians can really help fight injustice in the world and 2) there is still hope that state intelligence in some form can have a net positive effect in that fight, then it follows that these agencies must find a way to demonstrate their willingness to serve the same interests that the rest of the world (including mathematicians) perceives as good.

Posted by: stefan on May 12, 2014 6:55 PM | 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 3:12 PM

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ? Part 2

Apparently, CMU did take two million dollars from the NSA. I am not sure what “human behavior” research is, but it sounds a bit like social physics: predicting the behavior of people as if they were particles.

Interestingly, Cylab is involved. This lab hosts e.g. prominent privacy economist Aquisti. However, I cannot find the precise constitution of the NSA lab. It might be a good exercise to consider whether this was a moral act on CMUs part.

Posted by: Bas Spitters on May 13, 2014 10:59 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ? Part 2

The “scalability and composability of trusted computer systems” part sounds like large scale model checking. This is a good thing: it would be nice if someone could prove that the vast array of computers controlling a car, a plane or an air traffic control system actually do what they’re supposed to do. (Your new car has thirty or more computers controlling everything from the stereo to the engine, the brakes and the door locks, and they all communicate with each other. Each of these may or may not have been verified individually, but correctness of individual components doesn’t imply correctness of the entire system, and the cost of verifying interacting systems can grow exponentially with the number of components. When one of these components has a bug, people die.)

And that’s the problem with trying to attach a moral judgement to this kind of research: it’s too powerful to only have one application. For example, I’m working on “using computers to find similarities between real-world graphs that don’t have nice properties”. This helps with finding molecules with certain properties for biochemistry and drug design (good), designing better biological weapons (bad), verifying communications protocols and circuits (good), finding exploitable weaknesses in communications protocols and security systems (bad, although criminals and governments we don’t like are doing this anyway, so maybe it’s good that we get there first?), identifying fraud, tax evasion and money laundering (good), identifying donations to political groups that don’t meet the approval of the government of your choice (bad), reducing fuel use and carbon emissions when scheduling vehicles (good), reducing the cost of invading an oil-rich country (bad?), producing better web search results (good) and providing better privacy-violating advertising (bad).

On balance, I would rather the NSA spent their money on research that benefits everyone than on employing more people to listen in on phonecalls. If CMU had taken money from the Hugs and Puppies Foundation to do exactly the same research, we would all be considering it to be a Good Thing.

Posted by: Ciaran McCreesh on May 14, 2014 12:05 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ? Part 2

Sounds like you’re gearing up to write a grant proposal, Ciaran. You can list a dozen ways in which your work has impact, neatly arranged on a spectrum from good to bad.

Seriously, I agree with you that trying to assign a moral value to a piece of foundational research is absurd. But was anyone actually trying to do that? I thought Bas was mainly asking about the morality of accepting money from the NSA. That’s a discussion we’ve had before — though it’s probably one of those conversations that could go on forever.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on May 14, 2014 4:21 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ? Part 2

Indeed it could, and there will be no end of new aspects to the question of how a mathematician should relate to government sponsrs. Despite the monotony, though, I can’t help but continue to mull over (dwell on) the question. In the previous discussion some good points were made, and at the end of it I left off by waiting and hoping for progress towards reform, and promising to use publications to push for it (along these lines.)

Although my NSA-AMS Young Investigator grant is overseen by the university, I still had to decide whether to promise support to student(s), and so I ended up saying the money would be there this summer. Now if trends reverse or new developments arise to sour even the federal support of open research in combinatorics, it will be harder but still possible to curtail the relationship.

Meanwhile there is an interesting feature of being supported that I hadn’t fully anticipated. It turns out that I find myself initially very biased in favor of any criticism or suggested reform of the NSA. If there is a good argument for continuing business as usual then I am mostly deaf to it: instead I keep pushing for the changes that would make me happier to be a mathematician in this country, with this government, getting this grant. With that in mind, here’s the EFF’s latest take on the current reforms and here’s their portal for writing congress!

Posted by: stefan on May 19, 2014 5:07 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ? Part 2

Ciaran McCreesh wrote:

This helps with finding molecules with certain properties for biochemistry and drug design (good), designing better biological weapons (bad), verifying communications protocols and circuits (good), finding exploitable weaknesses in communications protocols and security systems (bad, although criminals and governments we don’t like are doing this anyway, so maybe it’s good that we get there first?), identifying fraud, tax evasion and money laundering (good), identifying donations to political groups that don’t meet the approval of the government of your choice (bad), reducing fuel use and carbon emissions when scheduling vehicles (good), reducing the cost of invading an oil-rich country (bad?), producing better web search results (good) and providing better privacy-violating advertising (bad).

Tom Leinster wrote:

Seriously, I agree with you that trying to assign a moral value to a piece of foundational research is absurd. But was anyone actually trying to do that? I thought Bas was mainly asking about the morality of accepting money from the NSA.

It is certainly questionable to assign “a” moral value to a piece of foundational research. And it may even be problematic to give a more fine-graded evaluation like in Ciaran McCreesh text (5 good 4 bad if I didnt miscount), but these kind of discussions are important and given that it looks as if we are living more and more in an increasingly human shaped future I think they will get even more important. Last but not least morality is about how one imagines the world one would like to live in should look like. If one introduces a new piece of research into the public then this is thus in some sense automatically a moral decision.

Here it is to be asked what is the right and duty and what should be the possibilitites of the respective researchers in guiding the future use of the fruits of their research, i.e. their brain childs. There are currently basically no other measures to guide such a process after publication, than giving recommendations. But even researchers recommendations are often not asked for. This may be understandable if there are like financial interests in promoting research uses, but it often also occurs for the case of objecting research uses. Interestingly in this context is that researchers are often attributed to lack social intelligence for being able to recommend. In particular there is e.g. no kind of veto right/duty or some other measures for a higher influence on preventing certain public uses of research and technology like if researchers see that their research is used in (for them) unmoral/problematic ways.

This seems to be mostly due to the fact that it is assumed that the public is (fastly) informed enough to be able to judge equally (or like for the social component even better). Unfortunately this is not always the case. And it takes time and effort to communicate major problems and sometimes they may even be hardly foreseeable for researchers. And even if e.g. bans are imposed like in the case that politics starts to adress some problems this may not be enough.

And since apart from maybe withhelding research from publication (which is usually a career killer) researchers are not really able to care much about the future use of their research and thus they also do not really need to care for it after releasing it into the public (this is by the way usually different for real childs, which usually need to be educated).

Mathematics is no exemption as should be clear from the recent revelations about mass surveillance and this discussion here, even if this wasn’t maybe forseeable for Hardy. And this refers to all branches of mathematics, not only the one done at GCHQ or other secret services.

By the way does someone know how big is the percentage of mathematicians working at GCHQ or similar ?

Posted by: nad on May 26, 2014 8:18 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ? Part 2

By the way does someone know how big is the percentage of mathematicians working at GCHQ or similar ?

I’ve never seen a figure for the number of mathematicians employed at GCHQ. Of course, you’d have to define “mathematician” first. This article claims that GCHQ has 6400 employees, and presumably mathematicians are only a minority there. But there are also mathematicians who do consultancy work for GCHQ over summers or on sabbaticals. There’s the Heilbronn Institute too, which is a partnership between GCHQ and the University of Bristol, more recently also involving Imperial College London, King’s College London and University College London.

You said “GCHQ or similar”, by which I assume you meant something like the other Five Eyes intelligence agencies. If I remember correctly, Keith Alexander (then director of the NSA) said fairly recently that the NSA employs something upwards of 1000 mathematicians.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on May 26, 2014 8:35 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ? Part 2

Thanks for the comment.

Of course, you’d have to define “mathematician” first.

Yes I guess IT admins etc. are having probably often similar duties, so maybe it would be interesting to hear also the percentages of IT employees.

You said “GCHQ or similar”, by which I assume you meant something like the other Five Eyes intelligence agencies.

No I meant secret services in general and all over the world.

This article claims that GCHQ has 6400 employees, and presumably mathematicians are only a minority there.

If I remember correctly, Keith Alexander (then director of the NSA) said fairly recently that the NSA employs something upwards of 1000 mathematicians.

Wikipedia says the NSA has about 40000 employees, so there are about 2.5 % mathematicians, if one uses that percentage for GCHQ then this means there may be about 160 mathematicians at GCHQ.

Posted by: nad on May 26, 2014 9:07 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Should Mathematicians Cooperate with GCHQ? Part 2

I wrote:

If I remember correctly, Keith Alexander (then director of the NSA) said fairly recently that the NSA employs something upwards of 1000 mathematicians.

I did remember correctly. In his testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee on 2 October 2013 (45’03” of this video), Alexander said:

we are the largest employer of mathematicians (1013), 966 PhDs, 4374 computer scientists, …

It’s not absolutely clear whether he means 966 mathematics PhDs or 966 PhDs in any subject, but I think it’s the former.

The most extraordinary part of that video is at 52’00”, where Patrick Leahy elegantly punctures the oft-repeated claim that bulk surveillance has thwarted 54 terrorist plots. Having seen the classified evidence, he concludes “they weren’t all plots, and they weren’t all thwarted”. He then gets Alexander to concede that the true figure is at most two (and even that’s disputed).

Nad wrote:

Wikipedia says the NSA has about 40000 employees, so there are about 2.5 % mathematicians, if one uses that percentage for GCHQ then this means there may be about 160 mathematicians at GCHQ.

Interesting estimate! Thanks.

It doesn’t affect your calculation, but it’s probably worth remembering that most people working for the NSA are not employed by them directly, but via private contractors. I think I remember reading that they outnumber actual NSA employees by a significant factor (two or three?) For instance, Snowden’s last position was with the private contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, and not actually the NSA.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on May 26, 2014 12:07 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

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