Thomas Hales, a professor of mathematics at the University of Pittsburgh, calls himself a “mathematician who’s upset about what’s going on,” reports Forbes.
Edward Snowden’s whistle-blowing on PRISM, the NSA’s domestic spying program, left Hales uneasy about the fact that the agency employs as many mathematicians as it does. It is likely the largest employer for mathematicians in the world. Hales put his money where his mouth is and offered up a grant to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organisation concerned with civil rights in the digital world.
The EFF used the money to send an employee named Yan Zhu to the Joint Mathematics Meeting, a big-deal event in the maths world that was held this year in Baltimore, Maryland. It’s a place where maths-inclined folks come to discuss the latest in their respective fields and to hustle for jobs. Zhu’s only charge from the EFF: to discourage people from taking jobs at the NSA.
“The NSA is illegally mass-spying on people. I realise that people who have done pure maths probably don’t have a lot of other career options, but I encouraged those who wanted to talk to learn to code or program, and pointed out that EFF has hired a lot of mathematicians,” she told Forbes. “We weren’t doing recruiting, just trying to inform them that there are people who are very against the NSA.”
Hales and the EFF aren’t alone here. Consider this open letter from former NSA worker Charles Seife. He worked for the agency as part of its Director’s Summer Program, which he likens to “indoctrination.” He says maths-minded people are drawn to the agency’s work because “the maths was sexy. This might sound bizarre to a non-mathematician, but certain mathematical problems just exude a certain something — a feeling of importance, of gravity, along with a sense that the solution is not far outside of your grasp […] The other thing that drew us — or so I thought — was an idealistic vision that we were doing something to help our country.”
Here’s where Seife reads his riot act:
We now know that every Verizon customer in the United States has had his telephony records turned over to the very agency that supposedly has no jurisdiction over calls originating and ending in the United States. On Wednesday more evidence emerged that the agency collected tens of thousands of “wholly domestic” emails. We know that the agency has extensive capabilities to snoop on U.S. citizens and regularly does so accidentally. And we have credible allegations that the agency sometimes uses that information quite on purpose. If the agency’s tools truly are used only against the enemy, it seems that ordinary citizens are now being counted among them.
Thomas Hales, the “mathematician who’s upset about what’s going on,” points out that “mathematicians aiding in national defence goes all the way back to Archimedes, defending against the Roman siege and designing the catapult. Many mathematicians work for the NSA or organisations with ties to it. They’re involved in facial recognition development and big data aspects of mass surveillance. If privacy disappears from the face of the Earth, mathematicians will be some of the primary culprits.”
Mathematician Tom Leinster writes on Slate that people in his field rarely face questions of ethics, but this is changing rapidly — does a talented mathematician help facilitate what many decry as the worst in governmental behaviour, or does he go his own way? He writes:
Our work, then, can be used for both good and ill. Unfortunately for us, it is the latter that is in the public eye. Already unpopular for our role in the banking crash, we now have our largest employer running a system of whole population surveillance that even a judge appointed by George W. Bush called “almost Orwellian.”
So mathematicians must decide: Do we cooperate with the intelligence services or not?
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