Math in espionage: a predicament in working for spies

Original author: Tom Leinster
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Intelligence agencies employ many mathematicians, but potential employees should understand that their job will be to “spy” on everyone, says Tom Leinster.

Over the past 10 months, a major international scandal has gripped some of the world's largest employers. These organizations are accused of breaking the law on an industrial scale , and are currently the subject of widespread indignation. How did the mathematics community react? In many ways, they ignore this fact.

These employers are the US National Security Agency and the Government Communications Center.) UK - systematically watched our lives as much as they could, including mailboxes, SMS messages, Skype, phone calls, Web browser history, banking and location data. They are connected to the main cable Internet , listened to the public and political leaders , broke into cloud services and "destroyed" legitimate activist groups, all under the banner of the NSA. The goal, according to former NSA director Keith Alexander:
collect all data all the time.
A typical rationale for this massive surveillance is the prevention of terrorism. U.S. officials have repeatedly stated that mass surveillance prevented 54 attacks. But the NSA eventually admitted that it was a couple of times; the best of which was an estimated $ 8500 donation to a terrorist group.

Some argue that the information collected is “only metadata” —the phone numbers and duration of calls, rather than recording the conversations themselves. This is not true; the DSP has collected images from the web cameras of millions of people. In any case, it is wrong to believe that even the collection of metadata leaves privacy intact. As former NSA lawyer Stuart Baker said:
Metadata tells absolutely everything about someone else’s life .
Others argue that they are not concerned about recording their daily activities, they are sure that no one is interested in this. They may be right: if you never “interfered” with the government, perhaps the government will never watch you. But despite this, do we want these organizations to have such powerful tools to stifle dissent, activists, and even journalism?

So, back to the role of mathematicians in all of this. The NSA calls itself the largest employer for mathematicians in the United States . This is also true for the CPC, which is also a major employer for mathematicians, and works closely with intelligence agencies in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Some mathematicians work full time. Others work during the summer holidays or during the holidays.

We will never know exactly what mathematicians did for these institutions. The CPS does not comment on this situation, citing the fact that these are intelligence issues. But thanks to the revelations of former NSA officer Edward Snowden, some conclusions can be made.

For example, it is known that the NSA has undermined Internet encryption. Some methods of generating pseudo-random numbers based on the theory of elliptic curves are used to create encryption keys. This ensures that only the sender and receiver can see data, such as credit card information.

Snowden unveiled that the NSA has inserted a backdoor into the widely used elliptic curve algorithm, which compromises encrypted data. This cannot be done without deep mathematical knowledge, the details of which were recently described.Thomas Hales of the University of Pittsburgh in Notes of the American Mathematical Society ( Volume 60, p. 190 ).

Mathematicians rarely encounter ethical issues. We enjoy the feeling that what we are doing is not related to everyday life. Hardy number theorist in 1940 wrote:
I have never done anything useful. Not a single discovery made by me, or most likely that I will make, directly or indirectly, whether it is good or bad, has least affected the comfort of this world.
Hardy's dictum is currently not relevant. Mathematics, obviously, has a practical application, which is directly related in our world (life), not least to encryption used on the Internet.

Our work can be used both for good and harm. Unfortunately for us, society is the last to notice this fact.

Thus, mathematicians must decide: are we cooperating with intelligence services or not?

Our position can be compared with that of nuclear physicists in 1940. Nevertheless, they knew that they were building an atomic bomb, while mathematicians working at the NSA and DSP very often had little idea how their work would be used and for what purposes. Those of them who believe that they are contributing to the legitimate protection of national security may reasonably feel cheated.

At a minimum, we mathematicians should talk about this. Or maybe go even further. A prominent mathematician, Alexander Beilison of the University of Chicago , suggested that the American mathematical community break all ties with the NSA, and working for them or with its partners should become “socially unacceptable,” in the same way that working for the KGB became unacceptable to many in the Soviet Union.

Not everyone will agree, but it reminds us that we have a choice and a collective strength. Individuals may withdraw their labor. Heads of university departments may prohibit their employees from working for the NSA or DSP. National math communities may stop publishing agency assignments, refuse their money, or even exclude members who work for "mass surveillance agencies."

At least we must recognize that the choice is ours. First of all, we are people, and only then mathematicians, if we don’t like what the special services do, we should not cooperate.

P / S / Tom Leinster is a mathematician from the University of Edinburgh, UK.

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