Friday, January 09, 2015

Mathematicians attack the NSA

I wrote a letter suggesting that the American Mathematical Society not get too excited about the National Security Agency, and the AMS published this reply in the AMS Notices:
The AMS must justify its support of the NSA

Roger Schlafly (letters, November 2014) accuses mathematicians of an "overwrought" and "over-excited" response to the recently-revealed activities of the National Security Agency (NSA). So, let us look at some cold facts. In 2011, the NSA explicitly stated its goal of universal surveillance, describing its "posture" as "collect it all", "know it all", "exploit it all". The same year, the NSA's close British partner GCHQ said it was intercepting over 50 billion communication events per day. In 2012, a single NSA program celebrated its trillionth metadata record.
Those numbers sound big, but much more data is being harvested by Google, Facebook, and ATT. Why no criticism of them?
On encryption: the NSA's 2013 budget request sought funds to "Insert vulnerabilities into commercial encryption systems". The NSA described its secret program Sentry Raven as "work[ing] with specific US commercial entities ... to modify US manufactured encryption systems to make them exploitable for SIGINT [signals intelligence]". The aim is clear: that no two human beings shall be able to communicate digitally without the NSA being able to listen.
The NSA's aim is to spy on military and terrorist enemies. It has no interest in others.
Schlafly is, at least, correct in noting that outrage at the intelligence agencies' abuse of surveillance powers is nothing new: from the FBI's bugging of Martin Luther King and subsequent attempt to blackmail him into suicide, to the 2011 extrajudicial killing of an American child by CIA drone strike (a program to which the NSA supplies surveillance data). He is justified in worrying about the data held by Google, Facebook, etc., but he writes as if concern over that and state surveillance were mutually exclusive, which of course they are not; and much of that data is harvested by the NSA's PRISM program anyway.
I said nothing about the FBI's invesigation of King, and I am not sure it matters, as it was very far removed from the business of a math society. Nor about the Obama administration killing a 16yo enemy combatant.

My understanding of USA law is that an American who takes up arms against the USA can be killed without judicial process. If this Britain mathematician disagrees, then he can state his political opinion, but I suspect that the laws in his country are similar.
Further, his comparison with 1970s technology distracts from the awesome invasive power of today's internet. As the NSA's former general counsel Stewart Baker said, "metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody's life". Former NSA director Michael Hayden agreed, adding "we kill people based on metadata".
Sure, the US military acts on whatever intelligence it can get.
By collaborating with the NSA, the AMS sends a strong political message: that it is proud to support the NSA's work and welcomes it into the mathematical community. It is just as surely a political position as withdrawing cooperation would be. Many members are vigorously opposed to much of what the NSA does; indeed, when the Notices set out to organize the series "Mathematicians discuss the Snowden revelations", its editors could not find anyone to write in the NSA's defense. (And when they finally did, it was a longtime NSA employee.)
Yes, the only reason I wrote my letter was that no one else was expressing the foolishness of the AMS trying to boycott the NSA. I was not defending the NSA; I expressed no opinion about the merits of NSA spy programs.
How does the AMS leadership justify its continued cooperation with the NSA? Is it certain it has the backing of the membership? And what exactly would the NSA have to do in order for the AMS to declare "Enough: this partnership brings mathematicians into disrepute"?

Tom Leinster
University of Edinburgh
What would it take? The essence of his complaint is that the NSA has a spy program against foreign enemy combatants. The program has the approval of the leaders of both our political parties. The purpose is to prevent terrorist attacks. War is an ugly business sometimes, and maybe it is a necessary evil. I do not personally agree with some of the military actions. But what does Leinster want? To shut down the military? To shut down NSA? To prohibit military spying?

The AMS is not a political organizations. It is just mathematicians wanting to do math. It is formally American, so if there is an American consensus to send drones into Yemen to kill terrorists, then it is not the place of the AMS to try to obstruct it. If some mathematicians disagree, they can join political organizations to vote our leaders out of office.

The AMS hardly does anything to support the NSA. Maybe it accepts some employment ads. If the AMS is helping mathematicians find job that assist the USA government in the war against terrorism, then the AMS ought to be proud to have that role. I fail to see how it would be any better to help mathematicians find jobs at Google or Facebook.

Leinster posted a similar complaint last year against mathematicians cooperating with a British intelligence agency.

The AMS published another letter attacking me:
Difference between the NSA and Google

In his June 28, 2014, letter to the Notices[November 2014 issue], Roger Schlafly claims that he does not see a distinction between the dangers posed by the massive collection of data by commercial companies like Google and the collection of data by the NSA. Perhaps that is because he is also unable to see a distinction between public and covert oversight. No doubt the practices of Google are a real danger, but commercial companies are subject to regulations and can be brought before open courts whose judges are appointed by an elected president and have to be approved by the Senate. The regulations governing the NSA are classified, and the NSA is answerable only to a closed court whose judges are appointed, without further review, by a man who himself was appointed by a president who believed that one can defeat terror by declaring a war on it. Maybe these distinctions seem trivial to Dr. Schlafly, but even he should be able to understand why somebody like Alexander Beilinson, who grew up in a country where all courts were secret, does not.

—Daniel W. Stroock
Professor emeritus
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
I original letter mentioned that Alexander Beilinson was a Russian-American professor, as I thought that him growing up in Russia had some relevance. The editors removed that. My guess is that they thought that his ethnicity was a distraction, or that I was insinuating that he might be a commie or something.

The NSA is much more tightly regulated in its spying than Google. In its most controversial program, the NSA has collected metadata on Americans, but regulations prevent it from searching the data except in a few hundred cases where Americans were talking to known terrorism suspects in places like Afghanistan. Google is under no such restrictions. It collects whatever it can get, and keeps it forever. And not just metadata. It keeps email, search terms, sites visited, videos watched, and ads viewed.

Stroock reveals his politics by slyly referring to Pres. Obama as the "elected president" but Pres. G.W. Bush as "a president who believed that one can defeat terror by declaring a war on it." Bush has been out of office for 6 years. His war on terror has been continued by the Obama administration, as so has NSA surveillance. These policies have broad support in Congress and with the American people.

When I submitted my letter to the AMS, the editor said she got 7 or more opinions on it, and they all recommended against publishing it. One of the objections was that only the government puts people in jail, not Google. I replied:
The NSA does not put people in jail either. Google is, in fact, quite capable of instigating action to jail someone. See this recent story:

"Google sees alleged child porn in man's email, alerts police A Houston man is charged after police say Google tips them off to alleged child porn in his e-mail."
How many Americans have been harmed by NSA spying? Go ahead and count the enemy combatant in Yemen.

I am actually surprised at how little public concern there is about the NSA. Various people in the news media and academia are constantly telling about how some leak is outrageous, or about how the NSA has too much metadata, or about how some court lacks sufficient due process. But when pollsters ask people about reasons for their votes, the NSA is never even mentioned. Nobody cares.

The real threats to your privacy are coming from Google, Facebook, Apple, Obamacare, video cameras, credit agencies, consumer marketing databases, and various new technologies. Not NSA. The AMS would be very foolish to get into a political fight over the NSA.

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