In a stirring editorial in the New Scientist, University of Edinburgh mathematician Tom Leinster calls on the world’s mathematicians to boycott working for the NSA, which describes itself as the “largest employer of mathematicians in the US” and which may the world’s number one employer of mathematicians. Leinster suggests that mathematicians could refuse to work for the NSA, that university heads could refuse to grant professors leave to work at NSA or GCHQ, that national mathematical societies could refuse NSA job-posting ads, and even “expel members who work for agencies of mass surveillance.”
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.
I write books. My latest is a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it’s the sequel to Little Brother). More books: Rapture of the Nerds (a novel, with Charlie Stross); With a Little Help (short stories); and The Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow (novella and nonfic). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.