Should mathematicians cooperate with GCHQ?

One of the UK's largest employers of mathematicians has been embroiled in a major international scandal for the last nine months, stands accused of law-breaking on an industrial scale, and is now the object of widespread outrage. How has the mathematical community responded? Largely by ignoring it.

GCHQ and its partners have been systematically monitoring as much of our lives as they possibly can, including our emails, phone calls, text messages, bank transactions, web browsing, Skype calls, and physical location. The goal: "collect it all". They tap internet trunk cables, bug charities and political leaders, disrupt lawful activist groups, and conduct economic espionage, all under the banner of national security.

Perhaps most pertinently to mathematicians, the NSA (GCHQ's major partner and partial funder) has deliberately undermined internet encryption, inserting a secret back door into a standard elliptic curve algorithm. This can be exploited by anyone sufficiently skilled and malicious — not only the NSA/GCHQ. (See Thomas Hales's piece in February's Notices of the AMS.) We may never know what else mathematicians have been complicit in; GCHQ's policy is not to comment on intelligence matters, which is to say, anything it does.

Indifference to mass surveillance rests partly on misconceptions such as "it's only metadata". This is certainly false; for instance, GCHQ has used webcams to collect images, many sexually intimate, of millions of ordinary citizens. It is also misguided, even according to the NSA's former legal counsel: "metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody's life".

Some claim to be unbothered by the recording of their daily activities, confident that no one will examine their records. They may be right. But even if you feel that way, do you want the secret services to possess such a powerful tool for chilling dissent, activism, and even journalism? Do you trust an organization operating in secret, and subject to only "light oversight" (a GCHQ lawyer's words), never to abuse that power?

Mathematicians seldom have to face ethical questions. But now we must decide: cooperate with GCHQ or not? It has been suggested that mathematicians today are in the same position as nuclear physicists in the 1940s. However, the physicists knew they were building a bomb, whereas mathematicians working for GCHQ may have little idea how their work will be used. Colleagues who have helped GCHQ in the past, trusting that they were contributing to legitimate national security, may justifiably feel betrayed.

At a bare minimum, we as a community should talk about it. Sasha Beilinson has proposed that working for the NSA/GCHQ should be made "socially unacceptable". Not everyone will agree, but it reminds us that we have both individual choice and collective power. Individuals can withdraw their labour from GCHQ. Heads of department can refuse staff leave to work for GCHQ. The LMS can refuse GCHQ's money.

At a bare minimum, let us acknowledge that the choices are ours to make. We are human beings before we are mathematicians, and if we do not like what GCHQ is doing, we do not have to cooperate.

Tom Leinster
School of Mathematics, University of Edinburgh
28 February 2014

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