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July 14, 2017

Laws of Mathematics “Commendable”

Posted by Tom Leinster

Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, today:

The laws of mathematics are very commendable, but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia.

The context: Turnbull wants Australia to undermine encryption by compelling backdoors by law. The argument is that governments should have the right to read all their citizens’ communications.

Technologists have explained over and over again why this won’t work, but politicians like Turnbull know better. The recent, enormous, Petya and WannaCry malware attacks (hitting British hospitals, for instance) show what can happen when intelligence agencies such as the NSA treat vulnerabilities in software as opportunities to be exploited rather than problems to be fixed.

Thanks to David Roberts for sending me the link.

Posted at July 14, 2017 12:29 PM UTC

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Re: Laws of Mathematics “Commendable”

So…. suppose they go ahead and do that… would it then be illegal to use the approved Backdoorful “Encryption” standard to, say, play Diffie-Hellman?

Also, would His Honour mind going first, and declassifying all Australian State Secrets? Surely Australia has as much right to know what its government has been saying to everyone else about them as the government has to open everyone else’s birthday cards?

Posted by: Jesse C. McKeown on July 14, 2017 7:24 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Laws of Mathematics “Commendable”

Utter nonsense from the Aussie PM.

Posted by: Bruce Bartlett on July 16, 2017 11:03 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Laws of Mathematics “Commendable”

Oh no, as a patriotic Australian I feel compelled to do something I’ve never done before, that being to defend Malcolm Turnbull our current PM .

I say current here, because over the past few years our PMs have turned over about as quickly as tourists have fallen to our crocodiles. So we may well be onto a new PM by the time I finish this response.

To be absolutely accurate, I won’t defend Turnbull at all. His comments about the Laws of Mathematics were of course farcical in the extreme. It is worrying, however, to observe that they could have been uttered by any world leader today. Indeed, it is generally now held by our political classes that they can suspend the laws of nature at will; evidence their universally cavalier attitudes to the science of climate change.

Turnbull is not an unintelligent man, he was after all one of the few people to take on Margret Thatcher and mark up an unlikely win, as the lead barrister for the defence of Peter Wright in the infamous Spycatcher case. He also made a significant slab of his personal fortune through far-sighted investment in, and management of, internet startups in the late 90s. So he is not unaware of the practicalities of the internet age. He just refuses to acknowledge those realities publically, especially when he feels that his self interest is best served by sending a security dog-whistle to his fractious right-wing supporters.

He knows that the Laws of Mathematics will continue to rule, completely unhindered by back-doors, on the “dark web” and in open tools like GPG. Regardless, he still chooses to canvass laws that will push any remaining “terrorists” still using WhatsApp into the safety of the internet underground. His agencies will have backdoors to snoop on law abiding citizens who only wish to make internet purchases safely. They will, however, loose the few remaining tools available to trace the miscreants he claims to be targeting.

All of this wouldn’t be scary were it only Turnbull pushing this agenda. In truth, however, we are a little behind this curve here in Australia; we are only starting to get serious about implementing such measures here, while other countries, such as the UK, have acted much more quickly. For example it was Theresa May, the current UK prime minister (reason for emphasis the same as above), herself who as home secretary introduced that country’s Snooper’s Charter, a 2016 bill that gives the government sweeping powers to collect and analyse its citizens’ electronic communications.

According to the Guardian newspaper “The snooper’s charter already forced internet providers to store browser histories and has asked technology companies, such as WhatsApp, to build backdoors into their messaging platforms”

Theresa May renewed her efforts to increase mass surveillance and decrypt our messages in late June, in the wake of the Manchester and London Bridge attacks. She may be weakened by her recent electoral surprise, but this is one point she appears intent to remain strong and stable on.

My only solace in all of this is the inviolable fact that the Laws of Mathematics will continue to reign supreme, regardless of modern realpolitik. My open source encryption tool will continue to obey them, free of backdoors. So my private communications will remain private, right up to the point where one of us builds the first mass market quantum computer!

Posted by: Dominic Verity on July 19, 2017 8:40 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Laws of Mathematics “Commendable”

I didn’t know Turnbull defended Peter Wright over Spycatcher—that’s actually rather interesting. Though of course, there’s any number of examples of professional politicians who did interesting, intelligent, principled things before they took office. When he comes out with nonsense like this, it may be that he knows it’s nonsense, but I’m not sure it really matters. What goes on inside his head is something we’ll never know; it’s his words and actions that matter.

It won’t surprise you that I agree with everything you say. These days, May is mostly famous for her incompetence. But how I knew May, through her long period as home secretary, was as an anti-democratic authoritarian. She pushed hard for the snooper’s charter then, and renewed that push as PM (successfully, unfortunately). Her secrecy over her “plan” for implementing Brexit is no coincidence: she simply doesn’t seem to believe in the principle of democracy.

So now the UK has one of the most extreme laws in the world—almost certainly the most extreme law in the democratic world—enabling government officials to gather and examine their citizens’ communications.

When I say “government officials”, this includes a ridiculously long list of agencies. For instance, the Food Standards Agency could examine my browsing history without a court order and without my knowledge. I am not joking.

As you say, our only defence is what Turnbull calls the laws of mathematics, but which is really the combination of mathematics and technology. I do use some such means to maintain my privacy in the face of authoritarian laws. The trouble is, it’s not just the mathematics we have to trust; it’s the implementation. None of the leaks of the last five years or so have revealed any big mathematical advances made by intelligence agencies. All the trouble is in the tech.

Also, Turnbull has made big problems for you guys when you’re teaching. Any student who gets a question wrong can object that they have it on the highest authority that the laws of mathematics simply don’t hold in Australia.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on July 19, 2017 11:45 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Laws of Mathematics “Commendable”

All the trouble is in the tech.

But math can help here too. For instance, microsoft is building a verified TLS replacement in the everest project. In a related effort there is now a verified implementation of elliptic curve crypto, improving on dual_EC. See Tom Hales’ The NSA Back Door to NIST.

Posted by: Bas Spitters on July 20, 2017 8:37 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Laws of Mathematics “Commendable”

I looked at that page for the everest project but couldn’t understand anything beyond “this is a planned replacement for https, which is vulnerable”. (I paraphrase.)

Could you explain in less technical terms how math helps here? It’s not that I’m particularly interested in https etc., but I am quite interested in knowing broadly what mathematicians, or at least mathematics, can do to help human beings to communicate privately with each other.

Posted by: Tom Leinster on July 20, 2017 2:48 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Laws of Mathematics “Commendable”

I’ll try to elaborate on this later, but let me give one quick example. F*, the language microsoft is using for this, crucially uses Lawvere theories for algebraic effects. You may have heard Gordon Plotkin speak about this at some point. The programming language/proof language uses dependent types, you will have heard some excitement about those on the n-cafe…

Posted by: Bas Spitters on July 21, 2017 8:35 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Laws of Mathematics “Commendable”

Thanks, Bas. This and your other comment give me a rough idea of what role math plays in this, and a rough idea was exactly what I wanted!

Posted by: Tom Leinster on July 23, 2017 12:42 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Laws of Mathematics “Commendable”

Preprint version of the formally verified EC paper:

Posted by: David Roberts on July 20, 2017 10:54 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Laws of Mathematics “Commendable”

… “Verified” is better than “Unverified”, of course… but… what is being verified? Is it that the specific vulnerability of TLS is avoided? … It surely can’t be that the protocol itself is actually secure; (have there not been strong complaints against “provable security”)? Is it that the implementation doesn’t have accidental leaks (stack overflow/clash, memory noninitialization, uncleared freed memory…)? And, if it’s that, how closely would that depend on the underlying operating system and compiler chain being similarly verified?

Posted by: Jesse C. McKeown on July 21, 2017 1:10 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Laws of Mathematics “Commendable”

what is being verified?

Excellent question.

I know at least some parts have been verified to machine code. I’d need to look up the details again. In general, there is an effort to make a verified tool chain. To give some examples: there is a verified compiler for a subset of C, compcert, a verified ML-compiler, CakeML, and a verified microkernel, seL4 and a verified OS, CertiKOS. Of course, again we need to have a careful look at what has been verified. However, these are now clear mathematical statements which we can inspect, moreover, these projects allow incremental development, so more and more properties are being verified.

Coming back to mathematics, the Newton Institute is currently running a program on such big proofs in mathematics. There were lots of interesting developments.

Posted by: Bas Spitters on July 21, 2017 8:50 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Laws of Mathematics “Commendable”

The phrase “laws of mathematics” originated from a question by the ZDNet reporter Asha McLean, not from Turnbull, and the way the headline is phrased in the ZDNet article is theirs. Turnbull, in his answer, was just echoing the phrase being put to him.

This is regrettable, because as Tom Leinster rightly pointed out in his reply to your comment, it’s “really the combination of mathematics and technology” that is being referred to by ZDNet’s “laws of mathematics” shorthand. And while mathematical truths are eternal, technological designs are provisional.

So you have ZDNet to thank if your future students will indeed give you problems in the manner that Tom Leinster foresaw.

Posted by: A C on July 22, 2017 12:05 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

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