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February 10, 2017

The Heilbronn Institute and the University of Bristol

Posted by Tom Leinster

The Heilbronn Institute is the mathematical brand of the UK intelligence and spying agency GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters). GCHQ is one of the country’s largest employers of mathematicians. And the Heilbronn Institute is now claiming to be the largest funder of “pure mathematics” in the country, largely through its many research fellowships at Bristol (where it’s based) and London.

In 2013, Edward Snowden leaked a massive archive of documents that shone a light on the hidden activities of GCHQ and its close partner, the US National Security Agency (NSA), including whole-population surveillance and deliberate stifling of peaceful activism. Much of this was carried out without the permission — or even knowledge — of the politicians who supposedly oversee them.

All this should obviously concern any mathematician with a soul, as I’ve argued. These are our major employers and funders. But you might wonder about the close-up picture. How do spy agencies such as GCHQ and the NSA work their way into academic culture? What do they do to ensure a continuing supply of mathematicians to employ, despite the suspicion with which most of us view them?

Alon Aviram of the Bristol Cable has just published an article on this, describing specific connections between GCHQ/Heilbronn and the University of Bristol — and, more broadly, academic mathematicians and computer scientists:

Alon Aviram, Bristol University working with the surveillance state. The Bristol Cable, 7 February 2017.

It includes some quotes from me and from legendary computer-security scientist Ross Anderson, as well as some nuggets from a long leaked Heilbronn “problem book” that’s interesting in its own right.

Posted at February 10, 2017 2:42 PM UTC

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