Should mathematicians cooperate with GCHQ?

Two mathematicians associated with GCHQ, Richard Pinch and Malcolm MacCallum, have now replied to my April article, which consisted mostly of factual statements based on the Snowden leaks, followed by the mild opinion that mathematicians can choose whether to give GCHQ their cooperation.

Neither of them disputes any specific factual statement that I made1. Neither engages with the fact that the intelligence agencies intercept not just terrorists' communications, but everyone's (over 50 billion communications/day, according to GCHQ). Neither discusses the total surveillance mission of GCHQ's closest partner, the US National Security Agency:

Collect it all. Sniff it all. Know it all. Process it all. Partner it all. Exploit it all.
Neither addresses any of the facts revealed by the leaks. Both say, effectively: "Trust us."

But no one needs to trust Pinch or MacCallum, or me, because we now have detailed documentary evidence of what GCHQ and its partners are doing. We can simply test claims against that evidence.

For example, Pinch quotes GCHQ director Iain Lobban's claim that if his staff "were asked to snoop, I would not have the workforce. They would leave the building." In contrast, GCHQ's own documents detail how it secretly captured webcam images, many sexually explicit, from millions of ordinary people. If that is not "snooping", what is?

We all want spies to spy on terrorists. We all agree that the secret services must have secrets. We all support targeted surveillance. But what is at issue is mass surveillance: the monitoring of everyone, all the time.

Pinch and MacCallum blur that distinction. Thus, MacCallum cites MI5 head Andrew Parker's statement that the agencies and police have disrupted many "plots towards terrorism". But Parker did not credit mass surveillance; on the contrary, he added that almost all the plots came from a known pool of several thousand individuals. Even less relevant is MacCallum's observation that phone billing records can be useful in criminal trials. These are obtained from phone companies, not GCHQ.

Heads of mathematics departments would probably like to "stay out of politics". This is wishing for the impossible. It is illogical to maintain that dissenting from cooperation with GCHQ is a political act, but assenting is not. A HoD who runs a working relationship with GCHQ is implementing a political view just as surely as one who declines.

HoDs should at least consult openly. In London, resentment has been caused by the establishment of joint positions with GCHQ without proper consultation. Medicine and psychology departments routinely make ethical assessments. Maybe it is time for mathematics departments to draw up their own ethical policies.

We now have detailed evidence of what we are supporting when we collaborate with the secret services, and we can use it to have a properly evidence-based discussion. Instead of seeking refuge in the comforting myth of political neutrality, we should take responsibility for our actions.

1 MacCallum disputes one I didn't make; see the longer online version of this article. In both that and my previous article, every factual statement is hyperlinked to supporting evidence.

Tom Leinster
School of Mathematics, University of Edinburgh

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