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Friday, August 23, 2013

"No Such Agency"

Regular readers here know I'm a huge fan of Keith Devlin, and have followed closely his vocal objections to the actions disclosed of the NSA for whom he once worked. Now another favorite science popularizer of mine (and a mathematician by academic training), Charles Seife, has gone public with an "open letter" on the NSA (for whom he worked as well) voicing his consternation (he notes early on that back in his day the super-secret agency was "nicknamed No Such Agency"):


And Seife essentially argues that more mathematicians should be publicly voicing concerns over disclosed NSA activities.

a couple of excerpts:
"...we all knew that the math 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. It's big, and it can be yours if you just think a little bit harder. When I signed up, I knew that the NSA was doing interesting math, but I had no idea what I was in for. Within a week of arriving at the NSA, I was presented with an amazing smorgasbord of the most alluring mathematics problems I had ever seen, any of which could possibly yield to a smart undergraduate. I hadn't seen anything like it—and I never will again."

...but then this:

"The agency insisted, over and over, that the weapons we were building—and weapons they are, even if they're weapons of information—would never be turned on our own people, but would only be used upon our enemies.
"What do we do now that we have to face the fact that the Agency broke its word?"….

"I can only guess how much more horrified the ex-NSAers I know—you, my former colleagues, my friends, my professors, and my mentors—must be. Unlike me, you have spent much of your working lives helping the NSA build its power, only to see your years of work used in a way it was never supposed to be used. You could speak out now in a way that violates neither your secrecy agreement nor your honor. It's hard to believe that the professors I know at universities around the country would remain silent as the NSA abuses their trust and misuses their work.
Or would you?"
The NSA is known to be the largest employer of mathematicians in the country... one can't help but wonder what, if any, effect all this public disillusionment will have on its ability to recruit the nation's most able mathematicians going forward?

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