Mathematicians: refuse to work for the NSA!


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The trouble here is, in my experience, mathematicians tend to be an apolitical bunch, who will weigh NSA vs unemployment, and find it an easy choice. Also, within five years we will probably see cosmetic reforms at the NSA. These will enable anybody who wants to - such as the same mathematicians - to convince themselves that everything is fine now.

Whipping up the rabble is going to be difficult on this one. A lot of people don’t even care when Zuckerberg spies on them.


That’s where he lost me.

I’m all for encouraging people to do (or not do) something, but such punitive measures for disagreement seem wrong. Unless he’s walked in each and every one of their shoes…

As repugnant as I find the mass surveillance state, I realize that some see things differently, and as Boudegar points out, mathematicians tend to be very apolitical and I don’t think a professional society should punish people for their political views (even if I find them wrong).


“It’ll never work Smedley!”

People gotta eat yo.

Exactly. I’d even go further in stating that a lot of people don’t care what they’re doing to other people when they choose a particular career that feeds off of the misery of the general public; particularly in this day and age when predators are hailed as entrepreneurs.


I’d agree only if this would also apply to not working for Spetssvyaz, Chinese Third Department, British MI-6, and so on. Otherwise it reminds me of the nonsense during the Cold War that wanted the US to get rid of its nuclear weapons knowing full well that everybody else wouldn’t.


He makes three actionable suggestions, two of which are so obtuse he must be trolling.

Voluntarily choosing not to work for the NSA is great, if your political conscience won’t allow it.

Expelling people from established disciplinary societies on the basis of your political conscience will only empower the expelled to take the apolitical with them to new societies. (Which will probably snag some pretty sweet startup money from the NSA.)

Refusing junior faculty permission to accept government-funded work grants that your political conscience couldn’t bear would come across as such a flagrant assault on academic freedom that you’d have the last of the radical Marxists left in the English Department raising hell, to say nothing of everyone else.

It’s easy to ask other mathematicians to quit their jobs; it’s difficult to rein in your own government. It’s easy to fume that the TSA employee checking the list for $12/hr should quit her job in protest; it’s difficult to boycott air travel in protest. It’s easy to criticize the mostly black players on the LA Clippers for what you regard as an underwhelming protest against the racism directed against them (to take another bit of internet culture from today); it’s hard to give up the playoffs. It’s easy to fume about the NCAA and hard not to fill out those brackets.

It’s nice that this guy has a conscience. It’s good that he feels empowered to speak his mind. It’s fine that he wants to convince others. It’s depressing that his very next thought is to how he can skip the “convincing” part and go straight to canceling grants, voiding memberships, and engineering it so that it is “socially unacceptable” in his profession to do otherwise.


That’s exactly the issue that this would confront. A dominant political force, once established, can portray its dominance as the normal state of affairs, so perpetuating that state of affairs is the default, the apparently “apolitical” choice. It takes deliberate, collective effort to reveal the political machinery encouraging the “apolitical” choice, and to make an alternative apparent.

The photograph accompanying the article is, I’m sure, no accident. How long did the labor movement have to struggle to establish the idea that one should side with fellow workers in a labor conflict, that scabbing in a labor conflict is a betrayal? (And how many have forgotten this?)


Very well put. The term you were looking for is “thought crime”.

Sock puppets doing what they do.

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Really? Because I would say that hunting down “thought crime” is exactly the problem with the NSA.

Semiotix’s argument is for total capitulation to power. Abstract and individual opposition is of value only as a starting point for collective action, and that is exactly what is being proposed.

Learn how to fight.


Isn’t working for the NSA a political action, quite possibly one that involves direct (if probably conveniently hard to prove) action against other members of the professional society, as well as everyone else?

I’d certainly prefer not to drag whatever (beleaguered) remnants of the actually-does-security side of the NSA down, since they aren’t authoritarian quisling scum; but if you work on the offense and surveillance side, that’s an action, not a ‘view’.


Exactly right. Aux armes, citoyenes, so that we’ll have our arms ready to surrender to the proper authorities. You got me pegged!

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say working for the NSA can fry your brain. Just a hunch.

The NSA trolls colleges for the incompetently math-gifted, and they stumble them head-first into cold war politics. The product can be somewhat pure evil.

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Given that the current unemployment rate for mathematicians is hovering around 1%, it’s hardly a choice between the NSA and unemployment.

Yes, the NSA does offer very attractive pay, but the going rate for non-NSA jobs isn’t too bad. (Full disclosure – I have degrees in math and computer science, and regularly turn down job interviews for NSA subcontractors.)


I’m not even a mathologist and I can do that math.

I don’t think he means punishing anyone for what they believe. It seems quite evident to me that it would be for what they do. If it also happens to be the opinion of the worker that they should just keep doing that work because, well, don’t want to rock the boat or go hungry… that means that when they then take that opinion and -act- on it by continuing to do the work of a dystopian society… well that’s when the stick comes in. I just don’t want you to think what is being proposed is punishing anyone for a difference of ONLY opinion, though certainly opinion plays a role in choosing one’s actions, those things for which one is held responsible by society.


Colleges? I’ve read somewhere[citation needed] that the NSA hires promising students right out of high school. I’m sure those teenagers are deeply concerned about what a bunch of geezers in some mutual admiration society think. Especially when they’re offered a GS rating and a relocation package.

You can and should judge people that work for the NSA, especially if they are mathematicians. It is a choice. These are not poor uneducated blue collar folks trying to scratch out a living in the rust belt who work in a weapons factory. These are people that have a plethora of choices. If the NSA wants you, you can absolutely find a job somewhere else. You might not be able to suck as much money off of the taxpayer tit as you might if you found an honest job, but you will do just fine. People make their decisions, you can judge them for it. It is okay to make them feel bad. Social pressure is a perfectly valid weapon in the fight against an authoritarian police state pissing away gobs of money and liberty fighting a threat that ranks below death by bathtub.