When I was a promising young mathematician in college, I met someone from the NSA who tried to recruit me to work for the spooks in the summer. Actually, “met someone” is misleading- he located me after I had won a prize.
I didn’t know what to think, so I accepted his invitation to visit the institute, which was in La Jolla, in Southern California (I went to UC Berkeley so it wasn’t a big trip).
When I got to the building, since I didn’t have clearance, everybody had to stop working the whole time I was there. It wasn’t enough to clean their whiteboards, one of them explained, they had to wash them down with that whiteboard spray stuff, because if you look at a just-erased whiteboard in a certain way you can decipher what had been written on it.
I met a bunch of people, maybe 6 or 7. They all told me how nice it was to work there, how the weather was beautiful, how the math problems were interesting. It was strangely consistent, but who knows, perhaps also true.
One thing I’d already learned before coming is that there are many layers of work that happen before the math people in La Jolla are given problems to do. First, the actual problem is chosen, then the “math” of the problem is extracted from the problem, and third it’s cleansed so that nobody can tell what the original application is.
Knowing this (and I was never contradicted when I explained that process), I asked each of them the same question: how do you feel about the fact that you don’t know what problem you’re actually solving?
Out of the 6 or 7 people I met, everyone but one person responded along the lines, “I believe everything the United States Government does is good.” The last guy said, “yeah, that bothers me. I am honestly seriously considering leaving.”
Needless to say, I didn’t take the job. I wasn’t yet a major league skeptic, but I was skeptical enough to realize I could not survive in such an environment, with colleagues that oblivious. They also mentioned that I’d have to stop dating my Czech boyfriend and that I’d need to submit information about all my roommates for the past 10 years, which was uber creepy.
Nowadays I hear estimates that 600 mathematicians work at the NSA, and of course many more stream through during the summer when school’s not in session, both at La Jolla and Princeton. Somehow they don’t mind not knowing how their work actually gets used. I’m not sure how that’s possible but it clearly is.
William Binney, a mathematician, was working on Soviet Union spying software that got converted to domestic spying after 9/11. In other words, they used his foreign spying algorithm on a new data source, namely American citizen’s raw data. He objected to that, so strongly that he’s come out against it publicly.
The big surprise is how come they let him know what they were actually up to. My guess is he was high enough up the chain that they thought he’d be okay with it – he’d been there 32 years, and I guess he was considered an insider.
In any case, watch the video: this is a courageous man. The FBI came into his house with guns drawn to intimidate him against his whistleblowing activities and yet he hasn’t been cowed. Indeed, after getting dressed (he was coming out of the shower when they exploded into his house), he explained to them the crimes of George Bush and Dick Cheney on his back porch.
As he explains, “the purpose is to monitor what people are doing”. He explains how people’s social media data and other kinds of data are linked over domains and over time to build profiles of Americans over time: “you have 10 years of their life that you can lay out in a timeline, that involves anybody in the country”.
Describing the dangers of this program, Binney was extremely articulate:
- “The danger here is that we could fall into a totalitarian state like East Germany”
- “We can’t have secret interpretations of laws and run them in secret and not tell anybody. We can’t make up kill lists and not tell anybody what the criterion is for being on the kill list”
- “Just because we call ourselves a democracy doesn’t mean we will stay that way.”
There you have it. The good news is that that guy is no longer helping the NSA do their thing.
But the bad news is, plenty of mathematicians still are. And if you want to find a community more trusting and loyal than mathematicians, I think you’d have to go to a kindergarten somewhere. Not to mention the fact that, as I described above, the problems are intentionally cleaned to look innocuous.
Another example, possibly the most important one of all, of mathematics being manipulated to potentially evil ends. We will have trouble proving actual evil consequences, of course, since there’s no transparency. The only update we will get is via the next whistleblower who can handle guns pointed at him as he leaves his shower.