The NSA is the world’s largest employer of mathematicians and now there is a movement from some mathematicians calling for a protest against the spying agency. We don’t know what they work on at the NSA but we do know that mathematicians contributed extensively to the Orwellian mass surveillance of people around the world. The revelations from Edward Snowden as shown that the NSA’s surveillance efforts have increased security risks for anybody who uses the internet.
If you’re a mathematician please don’t go work for agencies like the NSA, GCHQ, or CSEC because their unethical and immoral behaviour as institutions is certainly not a good thing. Stopping mass surveillance is.
At a bare minimum, we mathematicians should talk about this. Maybe we should go further. Eminent mathematician Alexander Beilinson of the University of Chicago has proposed that the American Mathematical Society sever all ties with the NSA, and that working for it or its partners should become “socially unacceptable” in the same way that working for the KGB became unacceptable to many in the Soviet Union.
Not everyone will agree, but it reminds us that we have both individual choices and collective power. Individuals can withdraw their labour. Heads of university departments can refuse staff leave to work for the NSA or GCHQ. National mathematical societies can stop publishing the agencies’ job adverts, refuse their money, or even expel members who work for agencies of mass surveillance.
At the very least, we should acknowledge that these choices are ours to make. We are human beings first and mathematicians second, and if we do not like what the secret services are doing, we should not cooperate.