Skip to the Main Content

Note:These pages make extensive use of the latest XHTML and CSS Standards. They ought to look great in any standards-compliant modern browser. Unfortunately, they will probably look horrible in older browsers, like Netscape 4.x and IE 4.x. Moreover, many posts use MathML, which is, currently only supported in Mozilla. My best suggestion (and you will thank me when surfing an ever-increasing number of sites on the web which have been crafted to use the new standards) is to upgrade to the latest version of your browser. If that's not possible, consider moving to the Standards-compliant and open-source Mozilla browser.

August 25, 2014

Why It Matters

Posted by Tom Leinster

One interesting feature of the Category Theory conference in Cambridge last month was that lots of the other participants started conversations with me about the whole-population, suspicionless surveillance that several governments are now operating. All but one were enthusiastically supportive of the work I’ve been doing to try to get the mathematical community to take responsibility for its part in this, and I appreciated that very much.

The remaining one was a friend who wasn’t unsupportive, but said to me something like “I think I probably agree with you, but I’m not sure. I don’t see why it matters. Persuade me!”

Here’s what I replied.

“A lot of people know now that the intelligence agencies are keeping records of almost all their communications, but they can’t bring themselves to get worked up about it. And in a way, they might be right. If you, personally, keep your head down, if you never do anything that upsets anyone in power, it’s unlikely that your records will end up being used against you.

But that’s a really self-centred attitude. What about people who don’t keep their heads down? What about protesters, campaigners, activists, people who challenge the establishment — people who exercise their full democratic rights? Freedom from harassment shouldn’t depend on you being a quiet little citizen.

“There’s a long history of intelligence agencies using their powers to disrupt legitimate activism. The FBI recorded some of Martin Luther King’s extramarital liaisons and sent the tape to his family home, accompanied by a letter attempting to blackmail him into suicide. And there have been many many examples since then (see below).

“Here’s the kind of situation that worries me today. In the UK, there’s a lot of debate at the moment about the oil extraction technique known as fracking. The government has just given permission for the oil industry to use it, and environmental groups have been protesting vigorously.

“I don’t have strong opinions on fracking myself, but I do think people should be free to organize and protest against it without state harassment. In fact, the state should be supporting people in the exercise of their democratic rights. But actually, any anti-fracking group would be sensible to assume that it’s the object of covert surveillance, and that the police are working against it, perhaps by employing infiltrators — because they’ve been doing that to other environmental groups for years.

“It’s the easiest thing in the world for politicians to portray anti-fracking activists as a danger to the UK’s economic well-being, as a threat to national energy security. That’s virtually terrorism! And once someone’s been labelled with the T word, it immediately becomes trivial to justify using all that surveillance data that the intelligence agencies routinely gather. And I’m not exaggerating — anti-terrorism laws really have been used against environmental campaigners in the recent past.

“Or think about gay rights. Less than fifty years ago, sex between men in England was illegal. This law was enforced, and it ruined people’s lives. For instance, my academic great-grandfather Alan Turing was arrested under this law and punished with chemical castration. He’s widely thought to have killed himself as a direct result. But today, two men in England can not only have sex legally, they can marry with the full endorsement of the state.

“How did this change so fast? Not by people writing polite letters to the Times, or by going through official parliamentary channels (at least, not only by those means). It was mainly through decades of tough, sometimes dangerous, agitation, campaigning and protest, by small groups and by courageous individual citizens.

“By definition, anyone campaigning for anything to be decriminalized is siding with criminals against the establishment. It’s the easiest thing in the world for politicians to portray campaigners like this as a menace to society, a grave threat to law and order. Any nation state with the ability to monitor, infiltrate, harass and disrupt such “menaces” will be very sorely tempted to use it. And again, that’s no exaggeration: in the US at least, this has happened to gay rights campaigners over and over again, from the 1950s to nearly the present day, even sometimes — ludicrously — in the name of fighting terrorism (1, 2, 3, 4).

“So government surveillance should matter to you in a very direct way if you’re involved in any kind of activism or advocacy or protest or campaigning or dissent. It should also matter to you if you’re not, but you quietly support any of this activism — or if you reap its benefits. Even if you don’t (which is unlikely), it matters if you simply want to live in a society where people can engage in peaceful activism without facing disruption or harassment by the state. And it matters more now than it ever did before, because government surveillance powers are orders of magnitude greater than they’ve ever been before.”


That’s roughly what I said. I think we then talked a bit about mathematicians’ role in enabling whole-population surveillance. Here’s Thomas Hales’s take on this:

If privacy disappears from the face of the Earth, mathematicians will be some of the primary culprits.

Of course, there are lots of other reasons why the activities of the NSA, GCHQ and their partners might matter to you. Maybe you object to industrial espionage being carried out in the name of national security, or the NSA supplying data to the CIA’s drone assassination programme (“we track ‘em, you whack ‘em”), or the raw content of communications between Americans being passed en masse to Israel, or the NSA hacking purely civilian infrastructure in China, or government agencies intercepting lawyer-client and journalist-source communications, or that the existence of mass surveillance leads inevitably to self-censorship. Or maybe you simply object to being watched, for the same reason you close the bathroom door: you’re not doing anything to be ashamed of, you just want some privacy. But the activism point is the one that resonates most deeply with me personally, and it seemed to resonate with my friend too.

You may think I’m exaggerating or scaremongering — that the enormous power wielded by the US and UK intelligence agencies (among others) could theoretically be used against legitimate citizen activism, but hasn’t been so far.

There’s certainly an abstract argument against this: it’s simply human nature that if you have a given surveillance power available to you, and the motive to use it, and the means to use it without it being known that you’ve done so, then you very likely will. Even if (for some reason) you believe that those currently wielding these powers have superhuman powers of self-restraint, there’s no guarantee that those who wield them in future will be equally saintly.

But much more importantly, there’s copious historical evidence that governments routinely use whatever surveillance powers they possess against whoever they see as troublemakers, even if this breaks the law. Without great effort, I found 50 examples in the US and UK alone — read on.

Six overviews

If you’re going to read just one thing on government surveillance of activists, I suggest you make it this:

Among many other interesting points, it reminds us that this isn’t only about “leftist” activism — three of the plaintiffs in this case are pro-gun organizations.

Here are some other good overviews:

And here’s a short but incisive comment from journalist Murtaza Hussain.

50 episodes of government surveillance of activists

Disclaimer   Journalism about the activities of highly secretive organizations is, by its nature, very difficult. Even obtaining the basic facts can be a major feat. Obviously, I can’t attest to the accuracy of all these articles — and the entries in the list below are summaries of the articles linked to, not claims I’m making myself. As ever, whether you believe what you read is a judgement you’ll have to make for yourself.

1940s

1. FBI surveillance of War Resisters League (1, 2), continuing in 2010 (1)

1950s

2. FBI surveillance of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1)

3. FBI “surveillance program against homosexuals” (1)

1960s

4. FBI’s Sex Deviate programme (1)

5. FBI’s Cointelpro projects aimed at “surveying, infiltrating, discrediting, and disrupting domestic political organizations”, and NSA’s Project Minaret targeted leading critics of Vietnam war, including senators, civil rights leaders and journalists (1)

6. FBI attempted to blackmail Martin Luther King into suicide with surveillance tape (1)

7. NSA intercepted communications of antiwar activists, including Jane Fonda and Dr Benjamin Spock (1)

8. Harassment of California student movement (including Stephen Smale’s free speech advocacy) by FBI, with support of Ronald Reagan (1, 2)

1970s

9. FBI surveillance and attempted deportation of John Lennon (1)

10. FBI burgled the office of the psychiatrist of Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg (1)

1980s

11. Margaret Thatcher had the Canadian national intelligence agency CSEC surveil two of her own ministers (1, 2, 3)

12. MI5 tapped phone of founder of Women for World Disarmament (1)

13. Ronald Reagan had the NSA tap the phone of congressman Michael Barnes, who opposed Reagan’s Central America policy (1)

1990s

14. NSA surveillance of Greenpeace (1)

15. UK police’s “undercover work against political activists” and “subversives”, including future home secretary Jack Straw (1)

16. UK undercover policeman Peter Francis “undermined the campaign of a family who wanted justice over the death of a boxing instructor who was struck on the head by a police baton” (1)

17. UK undercover police secretly gathered intelligence on 18 grieving families fighting to get justice from police (1, 2)

18. UK undercover police spied on lawyer for family of murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence; police also secretly recorded friend of Lawrence and his lawyer (1, 2)

19. UK undercover police spied on human rights lawyers Bindmans (1)

20. GCHQ accused of spying on Scottish trade unions (1)

2000s

21. US military spied on gay rights groups opposing “don’t ask, don’t tell” (1)

22. Maryland State Police monitored nonviolent gay rights groups as terrorist threat (1)

23. NSA monitored email of American citizen Faisal Gill, including while he was running as Republican candidate for Virginia House of Delegates (1)

24. NSA surveillance of Rutgers professor Hooshang Amirahmadi and ex-California State professor Agha Saeed (1)

25. NSA tapped attorney-client conversations of American lawyer Asim Ghafoor (1)

26. NSA spied on American citizen Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the USA’s largest Muslim civil rights organization (1)

27. NSA analyst read personal email account of Bill Clinton (date unknown) (1)

28. Pentagon counterintelligence unit CIFA monitored peaceful antiwar activists (1)

29. Green party peer and London assembly member Jenny Jones was monitored and put on secret police database of “domestic extremists” (1, 2)

30. MI5 and UK police bugged member of parliament Sadiq Khan (1, 2)

31. Food Not Bombs (volunteer movement giving out free food and protesting against war and poverty) labelled as terrorist group and infiltrated by FBI (1, 2, 3)

32. Undercover London police infiltrated green activist groups (1)

33. Scottish police infiltrated climate change activist organizations, including anti-airport expansion group Plane Stupid (1)

34. UK undercover police had children with activists in groups they had infiltrated (1)

35. FBI infiltrated Muslim communities and pushed those with objections to terrorism (and often mental health problems) to commit terrorist acts (1, 2, 3)

2010s

36. California gun owners’ group Calguns complains of chilling effect of NSA surveillance on members’ activities (1, 2, 3)

37. GCHQ and NSA surveilled Unicef and head of Economic Community of West African States (1)

38. NSA spying on Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (1)

39. CIA hacked into computers of Senate Intelligence Committee, whose job it is to oversee the CIA
(1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6; bonus: watch CIA director John Brennan lie that it didn’t happen, months before apologizing)

40. CIA obtained legally protected, confidential email between whistleblower officials and members of congress, regarding CIA torture programme (1)

41. Investigation suggests that CIA “operates an email surveillance program targeting senate intelligence staffers” (1)

42. FBI raided homes and offices of Anti-War Committee and Freedom Road Socialist Organization, targeting solidarity activists working with Colombians and Palestinians (1)

43. Nearly half of US government’s terrorist watchlist consists of people with no recognized terrorist group affiliation (1)

44. FBI taught counterterrorism agents that mainstream Muslims are “violent” and “radical”, and used presentations about the “inherently violent nature of Islam” (1, 2, 3)

45. GCHQ has developed tools to manipulate online discourse and activism, including changing outcomes of online polls, censoring videos, and mounting distributed denial of service attacks (1, 2)

46. Green member of parliament Caroline Lucas complains that GCHQ is intercepting her communications (1)

47. GCHQ collected IP addresses of visitors to Wikileaks websites (1, 2)

48. The NSA tracks web searches related to privacy software such as Tor, as well as visitors to the website of the Linux Journal (calling it an “extremist forum”) (1, 2, 3)

49. UK police attempt to infiltrate anti-racism, anti-fascist and environmental groups, anti-tax-avoidance group UK Uncut, and politically active Cambridge University students (1, 2)

50. NSA surveillance impedes work of investigative journalists and lawyers (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

Back to mathematics

As mathematicians, we spend much of our time studying objects that don’t exist anywhere in the world (perfect circles and so on). But we exist in the world. So, being a mathematician sometimes involves addressing real-world concerns.

For instance, Vancouver mathematician Izabella Laba has for years been writing thought-provoking posts on sexism in mathematics. That’s not mathematics, but it’s a problem that implicates every mathematician. On this blog, John Baez has written extensively on the exploitative practices of certain publishers of mathematics journals, the damage it does to the universities we work in, and what we can do about it.

I make no apology for bringing political considerations onto a mathematical blog. The NSA is a huge employer of mathematicians — over 1000 of us, it claims. Like it or not, it is part of our mathematical environment. Both the American Mathematical Society and London Mathematical Society are now regularly publishing articles on the role of mathematicians in enabling government surveillance, in recognition of our responsibility for it. As a recent New York Times article put it:

To say mathematics is political is not to diminish it, but rather to recognize its greater meaning, promise and responsibilities.

Posted at August 25, 2014 3:23 AM UTC

TrackBack URL for this Entry:   http://golem.ph.utexas.edu/cgi-bin/MT-3.0/dxy-tb.fcgi/2764

15 Comments & 0 Trackbacks

Re: Why It Matters

What about all the mathematicians working on privacy-preserving mathematics? I mean, algorithms for things like differential privacy and fully homomorphic encryption? Where do they fit in? Can technology and mathematics not also be a solution to the problem?

Posted by: Jeremy Kun on August 25, 2014 6:34 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Why It Matters

After the unsuccessful Soviet-backed coup by the Air Force in Kenya in 1982, the Kenyan government tried to identify all traces of Soviet communist influence, and punish those thought to be responsible. Thus it was that mathematics books published in the USSR were taken from the library of the University of Nairobi, and the mathematics lecturers who had ordered them for the library arrested.

The essential problem with the mass surveillance state is that those doing the surveilling are the same people defining what behaviours warrant surveillance. The potential for abuse of power in this conflict of interest are immense, and evident.

Posted by: peterm on August 25, 2014 6:18 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Why It Matters

That’s very interesting; I didn’t know that.

Another major factor is that those doing the surveilling are very largely doing it in secret. They don’t even need to make a transparent declaration of what defines surveillance and what doesn’t.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on August 26, 2014 9:25 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Why It Matters

Add to these factors the issue of long-term data retention. All our activities, even offline activities such as travel or meetings, may now create an online trace and these traces may be captured and stored by intelligence agencies for future interrogation and use. The usual argument put by proponents of mass surveillance is along the lines of: If are you are doing nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear. But who is to know what will be defined as “wrong” in 5 or 25 years time, especially when the definitions are made in secret and perhaps not provided to the accused even in retrospect. How many of those currently on the USA’s no-fly list, for instance, know why they are on it?

The USSR was an allay of the USA in WW II, only to become an enemy later – as the left-leaning members of FDR’s administrations in the 1930s and 1940s discovered to their cost in the anti-communist witch hunts of the early 1950s.

So an innocent meeting today may arouse official suspicion or worse consequences two decades or more hence. The word “kafkaesque” hardly does this situation justice.

Posted by: peterm on August 29, 2014 6:59 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Why It Matters

Such matters are only the tip of the iceburg. First things first, physicists and mathematicians must complete a nonperturbative theory of quantum gravity.

Posted by: kneemo on August 26, 2014 2:18 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Why It Matters

The Greenwald quote is very true. He knows what he is talking about. Most of the oppressive regimes leave most of the citizens alone, and most of the people living in an oppressive regime are living in a kind of stasis. I was 18 years old when the communist regime in Czechoslovakia fell over. The Czechoslovakia in the 80’s was a “soft” form of oppression that Greenwald talks about.

An oppressive regime does not mean that everybody is beaten with a stick twice a week. There are certain things you cannot do: you cannot say what you think, you cannot publicly perform, unless the text has been greenlighted by someone. You cannot write a book and publish it. But most people do not want any of this.

Once in a while, you are required to perform some sort of ritual, you have to pretend loyalty to the regime. I had to go to a “manifestation” on May 1st and everybody in my family had to vote in the “elections” once in four years. Most of the people were members of some organization, not the communist party, but what was called “revolutionary labor unions”. The pressure I felt was very slight, but it was everywhere and everytime.

Now, situation changes when you want something from the state – let’s say you have this wonderful mathematical result and you want to present it on a conference in Cambridge, let’s say Category Theory 197x. Standard acts of loyalty are (sometimes) not enough anymore. There are several possibilities:

  1. You are a member of the communist party. You can go, mostly. Not always.
  2. You sign an agreement with the secret police, that you will report to them about people you met the conference. Something. Anything. Did that Russian mathematician tell something unallowed on the conference diner? Did someone talk about politics? Which mathematicians from the Western Europe strike you as most leftish? Basically, it does not matter if you tell the secret policemen just bullshit. They are bored bureaucrats, they do not care. It’s only a formality, right? RIGHT?
  3. You know someone in the higher ranks of the communist party (local branch is enough), and the person is willing to vouch for you.
  4. There were exceptions. You are a mother of three small kids (that’s important because we do not want you to stay in the west), you are in the not loyal box (let’s say because of your parents, or you sometimes say almost-forbidden things publicly)? Screw it, you are allowed to go, we are in a good mood today.

Otherwise, no conference for you. Moreover, you asked to go to a conference and then refused to sign? We keep an eye on you, because you actively refused loyalty when asked. You are worse off than before, definitely.

Posted by: Gejza Jenča on August 26, 2014 12:12 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Why It Matters

It’s always interesting to hear from people who have lived in more overtly oppressive political environments than someone like me (born and raised in the UK) has experienced. I’m not sure anyone who hasn’t lived it can really imagine what it’s like. We must be about the same age; the fall of communism was something I saw on the TV news when I was about 18, and it was something amazing but utterly remote.

Nonetheless, I think there’s a certain danger. We in the “west” who were brought up to pity those on the other side of the iron curtain could unthinkingly carry around a silly misconception: that political oppression has to look like what happened in the USSR or communist eastern Europe. Or, in the contrapositive: if our political system doesn’t resemble the old East, then it can’t be oppressive. But I hope that the 50 examples I listed make it abundantly clear that government oppression of dissent can come in many forms.

Maybe the most harmful forms of political oppression are the ones you never know about. Intelligence agencies who wish to disrupt an activist’s work don’t need to follow the clumsy example of the FBI with Martin Luther King. They can, for instance, damage your productivity for a while simply by planting malware to make your computer stop working. You’d probably just think you’d had some bad luck. Or, you might find your reputation maligned by some anonymous internet troll, and patching up the damage might absorb your time for a while; how are you ever going to find out that this was orchestrated by your own government?

Again, that might sound like hysterical over-reaction, but there’s clear documentary evidence that GCHQ has developed exactly such methods.

I want mathematicians thinking of working for GCHQ to know this.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on August 27, 2014 10:47 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Why It Matters

I meant to add: a friend recently sent me links to some articles about the Stasi technique of Zersetzung (“decomposition” or “biodegradation”) (1, 2):

The goal was to destroy secretly the self-confidence of people, for example by damaging their reputation, by organizing failures in their work, and by destroying their personal relationships.

So the ideas that GCHQ is now implementing aren’t new. But its power to implement them is far beyond anything the Stasi dreamed of.

When Greenwald spoke of the “bargain that is offered in all political cultures”, I believe that he really meant all.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on August 27, 2014 11:00 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Why It Matters

It seems important to understand the possibilities for abuse. Morozov’s Net Delusion is informative, although I think his book may need updating now. If the stasi can ruin peoples lives with such crude technological, but subtle psychological, methods, one wonders what one can be done with modern methods. The NSA playset is informative about what can be done on a small budget.

Judging from what happened in the US, I am not sure whether having a constitution would have helped much. As an aside, this comparison of constitutions may be interesting.

The NSA has mostly been focusing on the offensive side, but the same methods are (or will soon be) available to totalitarian regimes and larger criminal organisations. Dan Greer argues that the NSA will now have to focus on the defensive side. If I understand correctly, the GCHQ even has a separate division for this. Security of traffic lights may be an issue to look at.

In a new twist, the NSA has secretly been sharing data with law enforcement which I believe puts matters in another perspective. In general, we want to avoid a secret police.

With regards to the relation to mathematics, I think we can also tell a more positive story. On the one hand, it is important to understand non-trivial statistics (prosecutor’s fallacy, …). Perhaps the use of (secret) Big Data for law enforcement may be compared to DNA testing, which raises some interesting statistical and privacy issues.

On the other hand, as Snowden has been emphasizing encryption works. Mathematicians develop these tools, as well as other privacy enhancing technology. The general background could be Code is Law: if we decide on certain privacy laws, they could (to some extent) be technologically enforced. In case surveillance is deemed useful, we may decide to build accountability into the system. The gives interesting mathematical puzzles. So does the design of a secure e-mail system. I wouldn’t mind some mathematicians at the GCHQ working on this. After all, they also invented public key cryptography.

Posted by: Bas Spitters on September 2, 2014 8:44 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Why It Matters

Security of traffic lights may be an issue to look at.

It would be interesting to know how big the consequences of a nonfunctioning traffic light system would be (I didn’t read the paper, did it say something on that topic?). Finally there are still traffic rules in case there are no lights and humans who could in principle jump in to regulate. I guess cybersecurity could be much more an issue with the overall “digitalization of cars” and moreover with the introduction of self driving cars on a massive scale for transeportation (or even just for traffic regulation).

Posted by: nad on September 15, 2014 9:01 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Why It Matters

Have you ever actually driven through an intersection with a nonfunctioning traffic light? People attempting to follow the rules are rare, and generally don’t manage to make it through. And yes, there are people who can direct traffic in theory, but the nightmare scenario is that all the traffic lights in Manhattan go out during rush hour — imagine what that would do to the ability of the policy to respond to anything else.

Posted by: Mark Meckes on September 15, 2014 11:46 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Why It Matters

Police, that is, not policy.

Posted by: Mark Meckes on September 15, 2014 11:47 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Why It Matters

Another potential instance for your list is the Matrix Churchill affair, where the UK government prosecuted directors of a British arms company for illegal arms exports to Iraq AFTER the intelligence agencies had secretly directed the company to do so. From memory, no fewer than 3 Cabinet ministers signed public interest certificates which would have prevented the intelligence connection being revealed in court, and thus sending innocent people to gaol. Only Michael Heseltine bravely refused to do this.

Why the UK government would seek to prosecute citizens who had been patriotically helping it gather intelligence on Iraq, who knows. But this is precisely the point about the dangers to us all of our government acting in secret and without full public accountability.

Posted by: peterm on August 29, 2014 7:21 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Why It Matters

Thanks. I was dimly aware of that at the time, but wasn’t really paying attention. I’ll look it up.

The more I think about these things, the more problematic it seems to me that we in Britain have no written constitution. The legal constraints on the government seem very weak.

A fellow mathematician tells me that my posts on all this are perhaps too pessimistic… that maybe I could focus more on what mathematicians can do, in terms of contributing to technology that will defend against government abuses. I think that’s a fair point. I don’t know enough about the technological aspects to write on that topic myself, but I’d be glad to see someone else do so.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on August 30, 2014 9:38 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Why It Matters

Why it matters: I’ve just watched a really extraordinary video of German telecoms engineers being told that they, individually, are under surveillance because of the jobs they do:

https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2014/09/14/nsa-stellar/

(scroll down a bit to find the video).

The expressions on the face of one of them speak volumes. He looks like he’s about to burst into tears.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on September 14, 2014 8:27 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Post a New Comment