For Good Or Ill: Working For the Spooks Becomes Untenable

Abby Zimet

Reminding them of their "individual choices and collective power," a University of Edinburgh professor has called on the world's mathematicians to boycott, or at least speak out against the work of the NSA - reportedly the largest employer of mathematicians in the U.S. and possibly the world. Writing in the New Scientist, mathematician Tom Leinster reminds colleagues that as "human beings first and mathematicians second," they must seriously question the moral implications of working for surveillance agencies that misuse their skills. In a sign the NSA's recent low profile hasn't changed the rancor much of the world still feels towards it, former NSA boss Keith Alexander likewise met with some tough questions from - no, not a journalist, but a so-called comedian - John Oliver on the debut of his new HBO show Last Week Tonight. Oliver called Alexander on several bogus talking points, like the supposedly substantive difference between "data" and "megadata," and suggested the NSA undertake a rebranding effort that would, say, change its name to "Mr. Tiggles" or "Washington Redskins."

On the argument that "to get the needle, you need the haystack: “But people’s concern, I think,  is you’re not just taking the haystack, you’re taking the whole farm, and the county, and the state, and you’ve got some photos of the farmer’s wife in the shower as well.”


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