Mathematicians: refuse to work for the NSA!

Not, in general, as political as academics in the humanities but I’d hardly call it an easy choice.

I was a mathematician on the job market last year. The joint meetings of the AMS (math research society) and MAA (math teaching society) were in January, just before Snowden’s stuff came out. There are some research and expository talks going on but for many people, including me, it is where you go to interview for jobs. The job market sucked (and still does) so I only had a few interviews and I ended up stopping by the NSA’s booth. (I have NSA swag such as a water bottle and juggling/hackey sacks somewhere.) As it turns out, they told me that hiring at the NSA was limited due to the sequester so I never had to face that decision. However, even before this all came out, the thought of working for a secret agency was not an easy idea to get used to.


A comment: This article vastly overstates the naivete of professional mathematicians, almost to the point of being a straw man argument.

We are far from apolitical. Most people in my field are very savvy about what they are doing, and about politics, and the interplay between the two. If there is some military application of our work or our skills, then we know what it is and how it is deployed. I would be astonished if there are mathematicians who have had the opportunity of working for the NSA, or some similar organization, and have made their decisions without considering the broader implications of them.

Be wary of the stereotype of the head-in-the-clouds “math genius” who doesn’t know the first thing about the real world. That person, at the level of professional mathematician that we seem to be discussing, does not exist. You need real-world understanding, maturity, and competence to be a professional of any sort, mathematician included.


So are you saying that mathematicians are… calculating?


Something doesnt quite add up here…

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$2.50 a gallon? Quaint!

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Skip the “convincing part”?

Can he cancel a grant unilaterally? Or expel members from professional societies by fiat? Will he “engineer” social stigma with a homemade disgrace machine?

Sounds to me like he’s trying to persuade his peers that associating with NSA bulk surveillance is a bad choice for their profession – I think the word you’re looking for is “freedom of association.”


Well said Rindan!

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University Mathematicians have an obligation to bring in as much grant funding as possible, just like every other member of the academic community. The more likely scenario is that anyone who holds a university job and who is capable of applying for NSA funding, and who doesn’t apply would be dismissed for not bringing in the money.

Next, we’ll be saying that chemists shouldn’t research new explosives with obscene densities of nitrogen in order to find the next RDX or HMX, that physicists and engineers shouldn’t work to improve guidance and imaging systems to fly on the drones that software engineers help fly via remote control in order to bomb people holding the mobile phones that the mathematicians have statistically linked to terrorists in Afghanistan. You could equally take the view that each $1M grant to a math department is one fewer Tomahawk missile ready to rain down on Tehran.

Tom Leinster is teaching maths to a room full of people, some of whom are saddled with £9000/year of government debt in order pay his salary - how those people should then pay back the debt they’ve incurred is actually none of his business.

I must disagree with you here. A mathematics society is essentially a group that exists for three purposes, networking, knowledge exchange and advocacy; the third reason is the most important for this discussion. This is not talking about booting NSA workers out of their homes and shunning them, this is talking about removing someone from the group; which to me is pretty clearly a logical step in advocating that the group does not support mass surveillance.

As others have said, working for NSA isn’t a matter of expressing the opinion that one does not mind mass surveillance, it is willingly assisting in creating a mass surveillance state, and just like cops that won’t dob in other crooked cops, or soldiers who blindly follow orders to commit evil acts; individuals must always be held to account for their actions.

Obviously that last sentence comes with a caveat that when judging someones actions circumstances must be considered. If an officer is threatening to shoot a soldier if they don’t follow orders that is different to an officer fearing a court marshal for the same… In the instance Steiner is describing we’re talking about a threat far less than a court marshal, so I think it is fair to say individuals can and should be held accountable.


If they help the NSA spy on everyone, I’d say it is his business. In fact, I’d say it’s everyone’s business.


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.

We’ll see about that. Edward Snowden doesn’t have a permanent monopoly on NSA whistleblowing.

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

I’ve found mathematicians to be pretty much like the rest of humanity. Some push aside ethics for their own benefit and many don’t.

A lot of people don’t even care when Zuckerberg spies on them.

History is full of the milquetoast that idly sit on their hands by while others more bravely take stands and propel all of humanity forward. This situation isn’t any different.

It’s usually a brave minority that stands up for human rights at first and then others follow the trail-blazed path.

There’s always going to be people who get tired, discouraged and lack the fortitude to continue the struggle, but then there’s… the others.


This is a variant of the “just following orders” argument – the child of that argument and the argument that corporations are obligated to maximize shareholder returns by any available means.

University professors don’t make that much money, and it’s certainly not their fault that tuitions keep spiralling upwards.

The NSA is certainly not the only employer of mathematicians. And it’s entirely within the purview of professionals to advocate ethical standards for members of their profession.


No, no its not: thought crime isn’t even close to describing anything to do with this situation. Leinster is advocating a pretty light punishment for actual actions, i.e. actively assisting the NSA operate a surveillance state, not punishing people for their thoughts.


First things first. Nothing in Leinster’s article is about funding grants from the NSA. The discussion is about employment with the NSA. With that in mind, I’ll address your strawman regardless, because even if your response addressed Leinster’s argument, it still has holes in it.

The more likely scenario is that anyone who holds a university job and who is capable of applying for NSA funding, and who doesn’t apply would be dismissed for not bringing in the money.

Whilst I sadly suspect that might be true for some members of the academic community, it certainly isn’t true of everyone. There are plenty of academics too valuable to universities to be fired for not applying for grant money, and if any truly valuable academic was fired for such an action, they’d probably be headhunted by another university wanting to absorb reputation of having a moral high ground. Morality and universities have long gone hand in hand, and even in this age of neoliberal rationalisation, universities do see value in promoting their own morality. I picked my university over another precisely because they hired a Professor who had been fired from his previous university after being critical of the government on a number of issues; I know I’m not the only student in my course that decided my uni for the same reason.

As to your second sentence: I think chemists should think about the morality of researching explosives, however I don’t propose they should abandon the study, as there are plenty of morally legitimate reasons to use explosives; I can’t think of a morally legitimate reason for creating a surveillance state.

*Edit, I see I missed a very brief sentence in the article. It does discuss grant money. Everything else aside that comment I stand by.


We’re not talking about censure for political views. We’re talking about censure for actions.


I was looking for math contests for my daughter’s math club and found the USAMTS that is sponsored by the NSA. We will not be doing that one. If no one will take a stand, then it will not end. In that movie (The Insider) about the tobacco industry guy (Jeffery Wigand) who blew the whistle on nicotine, he ended up teaching high school. LInk

He took the financial/prestige hit in order to do what is right. Now lives were at stake there and perhaps they are not with the NSA. Still. What the NSA is doing now is nothing compared to what it is setting itself up to be able to do. It has the power to shut down dissent nearly completely. That’s worth sacrificing for. I hope more people will be brave enough to take a stand.


What happens if Spook Mathematicians are ostracized from the existing societies? Won’t that lead to disjoint communities ad odds with each other?

Won’t this lead to even more (Wall) Street like mathematicians where the harm possible could be even worse?

No–instead, he can urge others to do the same thing. (Well, except for the disgrace machine, which is a secret NSA project.) Which is what I was criticizing him for, because those would be bad acts, not justified by the outcomes.

He’s talking about department chairs turning away grants from the NSA on behalf of subordinate faculty. Why not the DoD? Why not the NSF? Should an NEH grant be subjected to the English department chair’s political wisdom? If not, why not? Don’t for an instant think that words and images and rhetoric can’t be turned to evil hegemonic ends as much as crypto-math can.

For that matter, why stop with faculty? The problem here is that mathematicians are working for the NSA, and his solution is for influential figures in the math community to use their influence to frustrate the math careers of anyone on the wrong side of a political debate. Wouldn’t it be easier just to refuse to teach advanced mathematics to undergraduates whose political leanings suggested that they might go to work for the NSA? Sure, the optics would be bad, but it wouldn’t be book-burning and it wouldn’t crush their souls to not learn really high-level math. Can we in good conscience train the next generation of NSA stooges and lackeys?

So yes, I’m criticizing him for suggesting that academics violate one of their most basic norms in order to accomplish exactly nothing in the struggle against the surveillance state, and I’m additionally critical that he prefers thinking out loud about punishing colleagues whose work offends his sensibilities to thinking out loud about changing the governments that fund the math in the first place. The difference between “Bob, consider the moral dimension of writing that NSA grant” and “Bob, if you’re going to write that NSA grant, I’m going to need you to teach nine sections of pre-calc every semester for the foreseeable future” is pretty stark, and he’s explicitly choosing the latter.

He’s trying to take freedom of association out of the equation. And even that I could understand in extreme circumstances, if it would help further the larger aim of dialing back domestic spying. But it won’t.

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That’s good news, I didn’t know that.

Next, we’ll be saying that chemists shouldn’t research new explosives with obscene densities of nitrogen […] in order to bomb people holding the mobile phones that the mathematicians have statistically linked to terrorists in Afghanistan.

Next, we’ll be saying that doctors shouldn’t assist with torture.

Given what is now publicly known, taking a job at the NSA means knowingly contributing to large-scale violations of Article 12 of the International Declaration of Human Rights.