### 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.

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:

Should mathematicians cooperate with GCHQ?

Tom LeinsterOne 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

theirrecords. 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.

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.

## 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.