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Mathematicians Push Back Against the NSA 233

Posted by samzenpus
from the stop-adding-to-the-problem dept.
First time accepted submitter Parseval (3632761) writes "The NSA and GCHQ need mathematicians in order to function — they are some of the biggest employers of mathematicians in the world. This New Scientist article by a mathematician describes some of the math behind mass surveillance, and calls on other mathematicians to refuse to cooperate with the NSA/GCHQ while they continue to surveil the entire population. From the article: 'Mathematicians seldom face ethical questions. We enjoy the feeling that what we do is separate from the everyday world. As the number theorist G. H. Hardy wrote in 1940: "I have never done anything 'useful'. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the amenity of the world." That idea is now untenable. Mathematics clearly has practical applications that are highly relevant to the modern world, not least internet encryption.'"
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Mathematicians Push Back Against the NSA

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 27, 2014 @03:58PM (#46854251)
    Hardy's conceit is nonsense. Mathematics has always had a dark side. Archimedes built war machines. To admit anything else is to say that mathematics is useless, and we have no business foisting it on students. I am tired of mathematicians who whine that math does not get enough support in the United States and then brag that it is like art. If you want to act like an artist you should not complain if you are paid and treated with scorn like one.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 27, 2014 @04:30PM (#46854425)

    This trend of demanding that STEM workers should refuse to work on ethical grounds is very disturbing, and very misguided.

    It is, in fact, a complete passing of the buck. Politically-capable voters are refusing to get off their asses and use their political power to reign in these government agencies, and are instead demanding that STEM workers sacrifice their jobs, potentially ruining their careers, in an completely ineffective effort to stop government evil.

    If you have an axe to grind, the only morally-correct thing to do is to grind it yourself. It is slothful and cruel to demand that other people should make a sacrifice in order to champion your noble cause for you.

    Furthermore, it should be outright obvious now that the advancement of scientific (including mathematical) knowledge will not be curtailed. If you don't research it, someone else will. That someone else may be one of your enemies. Demanding a halting of progress will only result on our country being left behind in the technology race. It is tactically ridiculous.

    If you want the government evil to stop, get up, demonstrate, vote, and lobby. Those are the tools you have. If you are unwilling to use them, you have no business demanding that others do it for you, especially not in a stupid way that requires great sacrifice and is guaranteed to fail.

  • by BiIl_the_Engineer (3618863) on Sunday April 27, 2014 @04:39PM (#46854481)

    Someone else might do it instead, but that's no excuse for doing it yourself. You're still helping government thugs commit acts of evil, which is inexcusable.

    Yes, we should be tackling the issue in multiple ways, but that doesn't mean people are excused for 'just doing their jobs.'

  • by BiIl_the_Engineer (3618863) on Sunday April 27, 2014 @04:42PM (#46854487)

    Telling me of other acts of spying will not convince me that freedom is worthless, which is what you want me to believe. Freedom and principles are simply more important than security. You belong in North Korea.

    That's the message I want to send, regardless of how wrong you are in comparing every act of spying to what the NSA is doing.

  • by Cenan (1892902) on Sunday April 27, 2014 @04:42PM (#46854491)

    It is, in fact, a complete passing of the buck.

    Not really, this is a mathematician calling on other mathematicians to actually think twice before they accept that lucrative summer job at NSA. Other than that, your reply is utter bullshit. If we can't factor in the ethics of the work we do, the assholes down at NSA have already won. It is exactly your kind of mentality that keeps those wheels spinning - just a drop in the ocean, nothing to see here, more along citizen - if I don't do this, someone else will.

  • by Immerman (2627577) on Sunday April 27, 2014 @04:45PM (#46854505)

    It is on the other hand completely legitimate to condemn the jack-booted thug for crushing your neck under his heal - after all every individual bears absolute personal responsibility for their actions. Should we condemn any less the mathematician sitting in an office somewhere who is responsible for determining where the jack-booted thugs should be targeted?

    Certainly the electorate needs to get off their collective asses and change things, but at present there is no effective mechanism for them to do so. The election system has been gamed to the point that it's virtually impossible to wrest control from the two-faced party currently in control, short of a major grass-roots campaign to toss the bastards out, and such campaigns inevitably need leaders and organization to give them focus, which the NSA is quite likely doing their best to disrupt (we have documented evidence that the intelligence organizations have been infiltrating and undermining potentially powerful citizen groups since at least the McCarthy era, do you really think anything has changed?)

    I would truly love to hear any ideas you have as to how we can realistically disrupt the current system nonviolently - I have a couple, such as a direct democracy party being implemented within the context of the existing political structure (with elected representatives legally bound to obey the will of their constituency on individual issues), but I just don't see a way to get such system off the ground before the established power structure changes the rules to make it impossible.

  • by BiIl_the_Engineer (3618863) on Sunday April 27, 2014 @04:56PM (#46854569)

    Oh no, no, no! I am not trying to convince you that "freedom is worthless," but rather am pointing out that you have no useful idea about how your freedom was gained, maintained, and what is needed in the future to ensure it.

    If we need to infringe upon our freedoms to freedoms in order to 'preserve' them or even gain them, then I'd rather go down fighting. We're supposed to be 'the land of the free and the home of the brave,' not the land of the utterly worthless cowards. Cowards like you, who worship the government and pretend to want a small government at the exact same time. It's a fucking eyesore.

    If you are confusing what goes on in North Korea with what goes on in the US you are badly uninformed indeed.

    Your goal seems to be to make the US like North Korea. I merely suggested that you move there instead, since it's a quicker way to get what you want.

  • by theArtificial (613980) on Sunday April 27, 2014 @05:35PM (#46854767)

    Certainly the electorate needs to get off their collective asses and change things, but at present there is no effective mechanism for them to do so. The election system has been gamed to the point that it's virtually impossible to wrest control from the two-faced party currently in control, short of a major grass-roots campaign to toss the bastards out, and such campaigns inevitably need leaders and organization to give them focus, which the NSA is quite likely doing their best to disrupt (we have documented evidence that the intelligence organizations have been infiltrating and undermining potentially powerful citizen groups since at least the McCarthy era, do you really think anything has changed?)

    America is an Oligarchy [talkingpointsmemo.com] interview with the paper's Author. Another analysis [zerohedge.com] which I would recommend skimming over.

    What is most incredible to me is that the data under scrutiny in the study was from 1981-2002. One can only imagine how much worse things have gotten since the 2008 financial crisis. The study found that even when 80% of the population favored a particular public policy change, it was only instituted 43% of the time . We saw this first hand with the bankster bailout in 2008, when Americans across the board were opposed to it, but Congress passed TARP anyway (although they had to vote twice).

    Unless you get the "elites" involved you're doomed.

  • by jopsen (885607) <jopsen@gmail.com> on Sunday April 27, 2014 @05:42PM (#46854799) Homepage

    The NSA is an important component in understanding the world around us.

    Nobody complains about good old fashion spying... Such as hiring a PI to follow a suspect around.
    The invasion of privacy conducted at the hands of the NSA is so extensive that it makes whatever records Stasi was making look like childs play.

    It's the unprecedented scale that is the big problem.... Then there is the legality of industrial espionage in a civilized world, etc... And the fact that you normally don't conduct criminal activities within the territory of your allies.

  • by BiIl_the_Engineer (3618863) on Sunday April 27, 2014 @05:42PM (#46854801)

    It's not just mathematicians working for the NSA who are at fault; at this point, anyone working there is knowingly helping evil prevail. Anyone who doesn't quit is a scumbag.

  • by BiIl_the_Engineer (3618863) on Sunday April 27, 2014 @05:44PM (#46854823)

    no need for anyone else to do anything.

    No one is suggesting that we not do anything else. These people just need to refuse to take part in immoral activities, even if you think it's 'useless'. Principles matter.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 27, 2014 @06:00PM (#46854925)

    1) Saying "my vote isn't impactful" is no excuse for political inaction. In fact, it is precisely attitudes like that that make the political actions of the motivated-few ineffective. Political force is a matter of numbers, and if everyone just says "oh well I am just a drop in the bucket" then the numbers do not manifest. It is *so* much easier to point your finger at people who create the technology that gets abused than it is to actually get up and stop the abusers.

    2) Every useful technology can be abused. The man who invented the knife is not responsible for stabbings, nor is the man who built the individual knife used. The man who invented a means of recording the actions of corrupt police is not responsible when the police use those same cameras to spy on the population. And so on.

    3) How to realistically disrupt the current system nonviolently? Simple, reinstate the 60s. People got up and protested. They grouped together and demonstrated against specific political agendas. They did not just trespass and say "we are unhappy because we are poor" like the occupy movement. They debated. They voted. They funded lobbiests. They allowed themselves to be arrested. They did not relent. You can do the same.
    If people are unwilling to do this, then those same people deserve the corrupt government they get. If they further turn their ire towards engineers who invent new technologies, ignoring the useful applications of those technologies because someone else abused them, then these people are guilty not only of sloth, but of punishing the innocent for the crimes of the guilty.

    "Great ideas always enter into the world with disgusting alliances" -- Alfred North Whitehead.

    "Somebody is doing something bad with science. Quick, stop all science!" -- You.

     

  • by BiIl_the_Engineer (3618863) on Sunday April 27, 2014 @06:19PM (#46855023)

    "Somebody is doing something bad with science. Quick, stop all science!" -- You.

    This is more like, "Stop working at an organization that you know is violating the fundamental liberties of the American people, as well as violating the highest law of the land." People working at the NSA need to quit, and the people need to rise up and put a stop to this nonsense.

  • by Impy the Impiuos Imp (442658) on Sunday April 27, 2014 @07:23PM (#46855321) Journal

    In Starship Troopers by Heinlein, the non-intelligent bugs, when stressed, bred a "brain bug", and lo! The stressor magically went away, and the brain bug died.

    In The Mote in God's Eye, the Moties had a genius engineer caste...who was completely silent and didn't interfere with the controlling political caste.

    We have our Congress and we have our president. These are functionally idiots with precisely one skill: the ability to convince you they are your friend. i.e., as studied by psychologists, the ability to lie convincingly.

    Continue serving them like the brain bugs you are.Oh yes...they respect you, they say, throwing you money that is not theirs that you lap up.

  • by BiIl_the_Engineer (3618863) on Sunday April 27, 2014 @07:24PM (#46855325)

    So, you think that anyone attempting to protect citizens of the US and its allies is engaged in "evil"?

    I think infringing upon people's rights in an effort to protect them is evil.

  • by uniquename72 (1169497) on Sunday April 27, 2014 @08:02PM (#46855519)
    The key to effectively solving a complex, multifaceted problem is to attack it from all possible angles. 1 method does not negate the others; it compliments them.
  • by Pseudonym (62607) on Sunday April 27, 2014 @09:28PM (#46855893)

    Just look at "modern art" - it's hideous, silly, or both. No modern artist could hold a candle to any of the old masters or even the Neo-impressionists.

    Do you know how many "old masters" there were in any given century? The answer is: roughly the same as the number of "masters" in the 20th century, per capita. The only reason you're saying this is that most of the crap from the Renaissance has been culled and forgotten. For every Caravaggio, there are a dozen or more painters that you've never heard of whose work nobody preserved, or it languishes in a vault, or sits on the wall next to the Caravaggio where nobody gives it a second look, because there's a Caravaggio right next to it.

    On the other hand, it's true that if you look at the stuff in a modern art gallery, much of it is not recognisable as art to someone who has not studied art. If you look at the stuff going down a catwalk in Milan, much of it is not recognisable as clothes to someone not immersed in the world of fashion. If you listen to the stuff in the 21st century classical section of your favourite music outlet, much of it is not recognisable as music if you have no grounding in 20th century classical music. Pop over to Terry Tao's blog, and much of it is not recognisable as maths from the point of view of somebody who has not studied maths beyond the high school level. Hell, programs in Haskell or Agda are not recognisable as "programs" if your education and career consists of doing CRM systems in C# or Java.

    Do you know why this is the case? Because this the nature of innovation. This is how we get great new things. People must try a lot of new ideas, and most of them must fail utterly. History and failing memory culls the crap for us, and we end up with both a lot of good old stuff, and a sense of nostalgia which increasingly diverges from reality-as-it-was.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday April 27, 2014 @10:34PM (#46856155)

    People taking the impact of their actions seriously is "a complete passing of the buck"?

    You refer to the article as "demanding" multiple times, even though any idiot who reads it themselves and assesses its tone will see that it is simply a man attempting to call his peers to action. See statements like "Not everyone will agree, but it reminds us that we have both individual choices and collective power" - acknowledgment of differences of opinion without condecension, reaffirmation of choice...yep, all the earmarks of "demanding". You should know. Unlike the article, "demanding" is written all over your post.

    And then there is the repeated insistence that this kind of response would be "completely ineffective". That is the type of statement which is only true as long as everybody in the group keeps thinking it. So I find it interesting that you are so keen to reinforce that point.

    In fact, your post is so over the top, so far from believable, that I can only guess you're doing this in the course of your employment. Somewhat akin to the cartoonish exaggeration of the stereotypical used car salesman: born of insincerity, predatory intent, and a strong bent for social manipulation, especially via vigorous emotion.

    I hope the NSA pays you well to shovel their shit on the internet. I'd sooner be homeless, myself.

  • +1 (Score:5, Insightful)

    by gentryx (759438) * on Monday April 28, 2014 @07:33AM (#46857533) Homepage Journal

    History is full of tragedies facilitated by people "just doing their job".

    Source: I'm from Germany.

Truly simple systems... require infinite testing. -- Norman Augustine

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