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How did Snowden’s revelations affect the mathematical community?

Posted July 23, 2014

Edward Snowden’s revelations about massive and extralegal spying programs by the National Security Agency (NSA) in the US and by the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in the UK have sparked an unprecedented debate regarding individual privacy and the balance between terrorism prevention and individual freedom. Moreover, it has directly or indirectly affected everyday habits of numerous people – ranging from private use of encryption tools to general care incorporating cryptographic protocols into the very infrastructure of the Internet.

Mathematical research plays a crucial role in the kind of bulk surveillance reported by Edward Snowden. Some of the scientists have reconsidered the ethical repercursions of their involvement in such programs and urge others to do the same.

Mathematical research plays a crucial role in the kind of bulk surveillance reported by Edward Snowden. Some of the scientists have reconsidered the ethical repercursions of their involvement in such programs and urge others to do the same. Image: Paweł Zdziarski via Wikimedia Commons

But there is a part of society which plays a particular role in the discussion. It is the mathematicians, many among whom hold a position at one of these intelligence agencies as their greatest career aspiration. After all, NSA is often called the largest employer of mathematicians in the United States. The situation is not that much different in case of GCHQ in the United Kingdom.

Hence, it is tempting to ask how have Snowden’s revelations affected US and UK mathematical communities. To address this question editors of Notices of the American Mathematical Society have dedicated some space for mathematicians to voice inside opinions regarding their and their colleagues’ involvement in intelligence services that engage in untargeted bulk surveillance.

Although it is difficult to provoke actual NSA or GCHQ contractors to speak about their own involvement in these programs due to legal constraints, there are many American scientists who have worked in NSA-financed research programs that contributed greatly to the technical aspects of aforementioned programs. One of such researchers is Keith Devlin from Stanford University, who has worked in Defense Department project called Novel Intelligence from Massive Data (NIMD) from 2002 until 2006.

Expressing a sense of betrayal after learning about intrusive practices of the US intelligence, Devlin spoke about effectiveness of massive data collection that NSA practices in preventing terrorist acts. According to the mathematician, there is little reason to believe that untargeted surveillance may prevent individual acts of terrorism. Although the kind of metadata collected in these programs, according to Devlin, “tells you practically everything you need to know”, the information is too massive to single out terrorist groups. What is needed is human intelligence that would have the means to properly filter and otherwise process the data according to other known indicators.

For this reason data mining could work with targeted analysis of already identified high-risk terrorist suspects. Given that this kind of inquiry is rarely done, we witness repeated overlooking of actual terrorist threats such as in the case of Boston Marathon bombing, when the perpetrators were on a suspect list which was too large to identify them.

According to the mathematician, the harms of secret bulk surveillance and deliberate undermining of online privacy methods such as reported by Snowden clearly outweight the effectiveness in serving their purpose. This is why Devlin joins the ranks of those scientists who proclaim their non-cooperation with US and GCHQ intelligence services.

However, there is no clear statement by the mathematical community as a whole. It is obvious that there will be none such statement in the future, partly because NSA and GCHQ remain the largest contractors for mathematicians in their respective countries. Despite that, the debate is open and it urges scientists to rethink the ethical effects of their seemingly impartial research work.

Article: Mathematicians Discuss the Snowden Revelations, Notices of the American Mathematical Society, 06 2014, Volume 61 Issue 06, source link.

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