Mathematicians inside NSA

09/01/2014 § Hinterlasse einen Kommentar

„You have often asked me about the possible applications of various branches of mathematics,“ 24-year-old Alan Turing wrote to his mother in October of 1936, shortly after his arrival, as a graduate student, in the United States.

„The kind of thing I am working on at present answers the question, ’What is the most general kind of code or cipher possible,’ and at the same time (rather naturally) enables one to construct a lot of particular and interesting codes. One of them is pretty well impossible to decode without the key and very quick to encode. I expect I could sell them to His Majesty’s Government for quite a substantial sum, but am rather doubtful about the morality of such things. What do you think?“

The morality in question was not the morality of constructing unbreakable codes; it was the morality of a mathematician selling these discoveries to the government. Three years later, Turing was deeply engaged in working for His Majesty’s wartime code-breaking establishment at Bletchley Park.

Today, the NSA is the most generous employer of mathematicians in the world. These two facts are closely related. Alan Turing, more than anyone else, remains the NSA’s patron saint.

Alan Turing and his colleagues were able to apply sheer mathematical and technological ingenuity to systematically break the Enigma system, thisbwas the historic breakthrough that led directly to the monument to cryptography and cryptanalysis we now know as the NSA.

Who could have imagined that the close of the year 2013 would see Alan Turing pardoned by the same UK government that had convicted him of gross indecency and stripped him of his security clearance, while the NSA would be widely condemned by the very people it was intended to protect?

Attempting to build a quantum computer, and assigning real mathematicians to the task of envisioning what you could do with such a machine, if you had one, is exactly the sort of thing the NSA should be doing–instead of inserting backdoors into consumer software and otherwise sowing worldwide mistrust of the United States.

The primary mission of the NSA is to ensure secure communications–not to eavesdrop on everything. Answering the question of whether a cryptanalytic quantum computer is practical or not is critical to ensuring that we have codes and communication channels, when needed, that are „pretty well impossible“ to break.

News that the same agency that has been gathering all the digital communications in the world is thinking about a machine that could systematically break much if not most of our current encryption gives understandable cause for alarm. In the age of all things digital, numerical encryption is perhaps the last refuge of the free will of the individual against the collective will of the state.

Turing’s question to his mother about the morality of selling mathematics to the State–as well as his question about placing our trust in pseudorandom numbers–haunts us today.

In 1948, with the war over, Alan Turing was commissioned to prepare a report for the UK National Physical Laboratory on „Intelligent Machinery,“ in which he outlined his ideas for a machine that while „disorganized“ at a fundamental level would be encouraged (in Turing’s words, „disciplined“) to organize itself. „Discipline is certainly not enough in itself to produce intelligence,“ Turing acknowledged. „That which is required in addition we call initiative.“ Recognizing that „intellectual activity consists mainly of various kinds of search,“ the machine would be trained to ask questions, search for answers, and encouraged to learn from its own mistakes. „Bit by bit one would be able to allow the machine to make more and more ’choices’ or ’decisions“,“ Turing predicted, until eventually „interference would no longer be necessary, and the machine would have ’grown up.’“

From the construction of Colossus by the UK Post Office Research Station in World War II to the quantum computing research now being commissioned by the NSA, progress in computing has always been driven by the intelligence agencies.

What is new and different today is that with the sudden proliferation of Google, Amazon Web Services, and certain other internet-based phenomena, the private sector is now leading the way. Google is the realization of Turing’s vision of a machine that learns to know everything–and an agency whose mission is to know everything has to either build their own mirror image of Google or be left behind. The game has changed.

With enough resources (and subcontractors, which is where Edward Snowden comes in) anything is possible, with widespread encryption of internet traffic being the only serious obstacle to keeping up.

Despite the efforts of foreign intelligence services and transnational corporations to distance themselves from the Snowden revelations, it is evident that there was widespread collaboration, with the eagerness to share these new tools and advertise their capabilities through Powerpoint decks providing the means by which an Edward Snowden could reveal so much–exploiting the very communication channels that the tools were designed to control. Yet in the NSA’s fixation on Hard Targets and Big Data, the lowly Snowden virus–one person with the courage of their convictions--was overlooked.

The long-running contest between encryption and decryption has shifted from State-vs-State through State-vs-individual to become, finally, a matter of the individual against the machine as a collective whole.

Whose side should we be on? Are we better off in a world where nothing can be held (or communicated) in secret except by the security services, or a world where individuals (including dangerous individuals) retain the ability to communicate freely through channels that remain „pretty well impossible“ to break?

What would Alan Turing say to Edward Snowden if they could meet?

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