### The Electronic Frontier Foundation at the Joint Meetings

#### Posted by Tom Leinster

Going to the Joint Mathematics Meetings in Baltimore this week? Then drop in at Booth 330, which will be occupied by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

The EFF have been doing fantastic work for over 20 years, keeping the internet the kind of place you most likely want it to be: ensuring your freedom of speech, protecting your privacy, and defending the core principles of the internet against the controlling ambitions of both corporations and governments. Although they’re only a small nonprofit organization, with a comparatively minuscule budget, they’ve had a string of legal victories against huge players. They deserve your support!

But what are they doing at the Joint Mathematics Meetings? It was the idea of Thomas Hales. Hales is famous for, among other things, proving the Kepler sphere-packing conjecture. (He also wrote a very nice introduction to motivic measure, mentioned here in passing a couple of years ago.)

Hales anticipated that the NSA would be recruiting mathematicians with particular fervour this year: in order to recruit, they’ll need to overcome the outrage caused by the recent revelations of mass, population-level, surveillance. They’ll want to persuade mathematicians that what they’re doing is *good* for society. And the EFF will be there to tell mathematicians that there may be better channels for their talents.

In an earlier post, Bas Spitters immediately put his finger on the point where mathematics most directly touches the NSA scandal: the undermining of internet encryption. What you might not have immediately picked up from casually reading the newspapers is that among the variety of techniques used by the secret services to get round encryption, they managed to insert a back door into a cryptographic protocol based on elliptic curves.

The definitive mathematical account of this is Hales’s piece in the February 2014 issue of the *Notices of the AMS*. There are many other accounts from different perspectives. But rather than dump a large number of links on you, let me highlight one by the EFF.

The EFF piece quotes from an internal NSA document, which lists as one of their items of budgetary spending:

Insert vulnerabilities into commercial encryption systems, IT systems, networks …

And the EFF article makes a crucial point:

By weakening encryption, the NSA allows others to more easily break it. By installing backdoors and other vulnerabilities in systems, the NSA exposes them to other malicious hackers—whether they are foreign governments or criminals. As security expert Bruce Schneier explained, “It’s sheer folly to believe that only the NSA can exploit the vulnerabilities they create.”

In other words, *even if (for some reason) you trust the NSA with everyone’s data, their undermining of internet encryption makes the world a more dangerous place.*

Maybe you’re saying: what’s done is done. The outlook is gloomy, but what can we do now?

One immediate priority is to stop the situation becoming normalized. Those who wish to destroy online privacy will want to make the NSA’s actions seem like an unexceptional part of protecting national security. The NSA will, I imagine, be trying to persuade mathematicians in Baltimore this week that the whole fuss is really rather overblown; that perhaps a few checks and balances need adjusting, but fundamentally what it’s doing is good. The opposite argument needs to be made, and I imagine the EFF will be making it.

But more positive actions are possible. Mathematicians involved in cryptography can speak up! They can say “I do not want to contribute to mass surveillance”, just as physicists and engineers have refused to contribute to the building of nuclear weapons, and doctors have refused to participate in torture. We can withdraw our labour. We have that choice.

And mathematicians have a role to play in building new tools that allow genuine privacy. In the wake of the Snowden revelations, there’s been a big push to develop encrypted channels of communication that are secure against government snooping. Mathematicians can help.

It’s important to realize that as far as we know, the NSA has made no decisive *mathematical* cryptographic advance of which the rest of the world is ignorant. Snowden said in June:

Encryption works. Properly implemented strong crypto systems are one of the few things that you can rely on. Unfortunately, endpoint security is so terrifically weak that NSA can frequently find ways around it.

The NSA have used social, legal, physical and other means to weaken encryption, but the underlying mathematics has not been challenged. Nonetheless, mathematical expertise will be needed to build new, better, tools.

I’d love to go along to the EFF booth this week and help out. Unfortunately, I’m on the wrong side of the Atlantic. But if you’re going to be there and you want to help out, I believe they’d appreciate it. Just drop an email to Yan Zhu, who will be the official EFF representative there, or talk to her in person when you arrive.

And if you can’t be there, but reading this has made you want to help in some other way, why not join the EFF?

**Postscript** For more on the NSA’s weakening of internet encryption, here are some further links. I already linked to one post by the Johns Hopkins computer scientist Matthew Green; here’s a more technical companion post.
Less technically, there’s a great piece by IT security legend Bruce Schneier, and of course there’s any number of articles for a general
readership.

## Re: The Electronic Frontier Foundation at the Joint Meetings

Thanks for this post. I have been a card carrying EFF member for several years now. Their legal and advocacy work in defense of internet freedom and free speech is obviously valuable, but they also play an equally important role in educating the lay public about digital security, encryption methods, and so on (as an example, here is a classsic EFF whitepaper from 2011 on useful encryption techniques in the context of crossing the US border).

I am absolutely delighted that will have a booth at the Joint Math Meetings. There is no organization better equipped to spread the message.