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The Moral Failure of Computer Scientists

In the 1950s, a group of scientists spoke out against the dangers of
nuclear weapons. Should cryptographers take on the surveillance state?


Computer scientists and cryptographers occupy some of the ivory
tower's highest floors. Among academics, their work is prestigious and
celebrated. To the average observer, much of it is too technical to
comprehend. The field's problems can sometimes seem remote from

But computer science has quite a bit to do with reality. Its
practitioners devise the surveillance systems that watch over nearly
every space, public or otherwise -- and they design the tools that allow
for privacy in the digital realm. Computer science is political, by
its very nature.

That's at least according to Phillip Rogaway, a professor of computer
science at the University of California, Davis, who has helped create
some of the most important tools that secure the Internet today. Last
week, Rogaway took his case[1] directly to a roomful of cryptographers at
a conference in Auckland, New Zealand. He accused them of a moral
failure: By allowing the government to construct a massive
surveillance apparatus, the field had abused the public trust. Rogaway
said the scientists had a duty to pursue social good in their work.


He likened the danger posed by modern governments' growing
surveillance capabilities to the threat of nuclear warfare in the
1950s, and called upon scientists to step up and speak out today, as
they did then.

I spoke to Rogaway about why cryptographers fail to see their work in
moral terms, and the emerging link between encryption and terrorism in
the national conversation. A transcript of our conversation appears
below, lightly edited for concision and clarity.

* * *

Kaveh Waddell: Why should we think of computer science as
political -- and why have many considered it to be apolitical, for so

Phillip Rogaway: I think that science and technology are inherently
political, and whether we want to think about it that way or not, it's
the nature of the beast. Our training as scientists and engineers
tends to deemphasize the social positioning of what we do, and most of
us scientists don't give a whole lot of thought to how our work
impacts society. But it obviously does.

It's not something easily taught, either. I've taught an ethics and
technology course myself, for several years, and the students are not
predisposed to get the message that things technological are also
political. We tend to analyze what we're working on from a very
self-directed perspective. [We focus on] how it impacts us and how it
impacts the small group or the company with which we're dealing, and
the broader social influences of what we do aren't usually on the

Waddell: What led you to understand the political implications of your
own work?

Rogaway: I myself had been thinking increasingly in these terms when
the Snowden revelations came out. Those revelations made me confront
more directly our failings as a community to have done anything
effectual about stemming this transition of the Internet to this
amazing tool for surveilling entire populations.

Waddell: In your paper, you compare the debate over nuclear science in
the 1950s to the current debate over cryptography. Nuclear weapons are
one of the most obvious threats to humanity today -- do you think
surveillance presents a similar type of danger?

Rogaway: I do. It's of a different nature, obviously. The threat is
more indirect and more subtle. So with nuclear warfare, there was this
visually compelling and frightening risk of going up in a mushroom
cloud. And with the transition to a state of total surveillance, what
we have is just the slow forfeiture of democracy.

Waddell: Who else in the wider class of scientists -- besides nuclear
scientists, besides computer scientists -- has this level of political

Rogaway: I think this holds for all scientists and engineers. Very few
of us are doing something so esoteric that it's unlikely to end up
connected to the social well-being. If you're going to exclude people,
maybe pure mathematicians, for example. But we live in an age of
technology, and what scientists and other technologists do reshapes
the character of our world.

Waddell: Are there any other historical examples of scientists acting
according to moral principles rather than pursuing pure academic

Rogaway: I allude to a couple of others in the paper. Rachel Carson [a
scientist and environmental activist] is a nice example. There are
activist scientists; they're not a popular breed, but they exist. The
Indian activist-physicist -- Vandana Shiva, the seed activist -- is one of
the most prominent activist-physicists, frankly.

There is a tradition, especially in physics, of activism. But computer
scientists have not tended to be active in the political sphere. I do
think there were some during the "Star Wars" debates -- some computer
scientists who were questioning the viability of building the kind of
system that Reagan was envisioning, and saying that this was really
far beyond the capabilities of contemporary computer science. So it's
certainly not unheard of for scientists to be playing a role here.

Waddell: What is it about physicists that makes them particularly
likely to be involved in this sort of thing?

Rogaway: I do think it's a legacy of the experience of the Manhattan
Project. I think we in some ways live the continuation of our
histories, and that's something that's been internalized among many

And I give the example that, at my own university, how the physicists
were the only group outside of the humanities to call for the
chancellor's resignation in the aftermath of the pepper-spray
incident. Somehow, that wasn't surprising to me. My colleagues in the
physics department say that these kinds of questions are routinely
discussed, and I don't think that's true in engineering departments in

Waddell: Is there any inherent danger in politicizing an academic
discipline? I think a lot of people are drawn by the fact that
academia allows this curiosity-based inquiry. Is there anything that
can go wrong when politics comes in?

Rogaway: My sense is that politics is there, whether one acknowledges
it or not. When you have an ostensibly apolitical department, but you
scratch beneath the covers and discover that three-quarters of the
faculty are funded by the Department of Defense, well, in fact that's
not apolitical. That is very much working in support of a particular
ethos, and one simply hasn't called it forth.

Waddell: Does tenure have a role to play here? Does tenure help
academics focus on socially important goals, or does it divorce them
from reality?

Rogaway: In principle, the tenure process should free academics who
have already been tenured to venture out and question matters in a way
that could offend power. In practice, it doesn't seem relevant. By the
time a faculty member is tenured, it's likely that his or her way of
seeing the world will have already been so set that they're very
unlikely to become political at that point if they haven't been

Waddell: You've criticized the typical law-enforcement framing of what
the FBI director James Comey likes to call the "going-dark problem."
Explaining the risks of strong encryption, he testified this week in
front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, saying that "encryption is
part of terrorist tradecraft now." What do you think of this sort of

Rogaway: In the talk that I gave [this week], I described two utterly
different framings of what surveillance is about: the law-enforcement
framing, and the surveillance-studies-style framing. James Comey has
come out repeatedly with these sort of talking points from the
law-enforcement framing. I don't believe they ultimately stand up to
close scrutiny.

It involves a whole bunch of related beliefs, starting with the fact
that privacy and security are in opposition with one another, and that
there are all these "bad guys" out there, and technology has been a
boon to them, because now they have encryption at their disposal.

"We run the risk of going dark." That's the phrase that James Comey
uses. A world of dark, locked closets. I think the entire framing is
this sort of discourse in fear, to make people believe that we need
this almost father figure to protect us, and that we're going to have
to give up some civil liberties to do so, but that's somehow for the
social good.

I don't think any of it ultimately makes sense, starting from the
beginning, that privacy and security are routinely in opposition to
one another, and going on through the presumed effectiveness of
denying the population access to effective privacy tools, that that
will somehow help in a fight against terrorism.

I don't think terrorism has much to do with the mass-surveillance
issue at all. This is a convenient storyline to be weaving in the
present day, but the NSA's own mission statement says that they're
there to serve their customers. And while some of those customers are
interested in terrorism, other NSA customers have completely unrelated
interests, and I don't think that surveilling is particularly aimed at
confronting terrorism. It wouldn't be effective even if it were.

Anyone who really wants to encrypt their communication is going to
find a method for doing so, whether it's bundled with mass-market
products or not. When you make encryption harder to get for ordinary
people, you don't deny it to terrorists. You just make the population
as a whole insecure in their daily communications.

Furthermore, law enforcement has an extraordinary set of tools
available to them now. An unprecedented set of capabilities, both for
law enforcement and intelligence services. These aren't somehow the
dark times for either law enforcement or intelligence. These are the
times of extraordinary information. Nowhere in history has it been so
easy to learn so much about everybody. So, in some sense, we're really
talking about protecting the smallest remnants of remaining privacy.

Waddell: There's no question that terrorists are using technology to
their benefit. Should computer scientists be doing anything about

Rogaway: Criminals are always going to use technology to their
benefit, just as ordinary people are going to attempt to do so. I
don't believe that anyone is going to change that basic truth.
Fortunately, criminal behavior has never been such a drag on society
that it's foreclosed entire areas of technological advance.

Waddell: You touch on a few recommendations for academics who are
looking to be more involved, to get people to care -- morally -- about their
role in blocking mass surveillance. Should morality be a criterion of

Rogaway: I think that when you're hiring faculty members at a public
university, that it's fair game to ask them what their social views
are, their views of social responsibility of scientists. I think you
have to be careful in how you do this that you're not applying some
kind of political test, that the candidates' political opinions match
up with your own.

But part of the purpose of the public university, land-grant
universities like my own, is to serve the public welfare. And if a
faculty candidate doesn't believe that that's a part of the purpose of
his or her work at all, then I think that that's not appropriate.

But again, I think one has to be quite careful in how this is applied,
that it doesn't become some sort of political test. There's a wide
range of ideologies that are perfectly consistent with being a
scientist or a faculty member. But one kind of ideology that to me is
not consistent is to say, "What I do has no impact, and I have no
responsibilities." Because that's just not true.

Waddell: What about the issue of funding? The fact that so much of the
money for the work that academics do comes from the parts of the
government that are involved in surveillance -- is there a way around

Rogaway: Faculty members can decide what funding they will or will not
seek. But it's very rare for a faculty member to say, "I'm not going
to accept DoD funding," for example. I think that viewpoint should be
more common, actually. That some people should say, "I won't accept
from this agency, I don't agree with their institutional goals."

Waddell: Is that a practical proposition?

Rogaway: It's perfectly practical, in the sense that you can be a
successful faculty member without accepting DoD funding. You won't
have as many students, you won't be able to support as large a
research group. And in some areas of computer science, and I'm sure in
some areas more broadly, the vast majority of funding may be from the

I remember speaking to a computer architect, asking if there was any
person in computer architecture he was aware of that wouldn't take DoD
money, and he said there was not. And he didn't really believe that
such a person could exist and be successful in the field, as there is
no access to adequate resources just from the [National Science
Foundation], say.

In my own area, cryptography, I think one can do fine living just on
NSF money. But you won't have a group of 10 students, or something.

Waddell: The paper and the talk you gave are pretty critical of your
colleagues in the field. How have they taken the criticism since you
presented the paper?

Rogaway: I've received a great deal of feedback, and almost all of it
has been positive. Even from faculty members whose research is kind of
directly impinged. So I believe the thoughts expressed in the piece
exist as a kind of undercurrent in lots of people's thinking. It's
just uncommon to give voice to them. I've received a great many
positive emails and thanks and essentially no negative ones. Maybe
those people just aren't talking, I don't know!

Waddell: What do you think is the moral role of journalism and the
media in covering these issues?

Rogaway: First of all, I think journalism is quite threatened by the
possibility of being continually surveilled. It's surprising to me
that journalists aren't fighting harder to ensure that they have good
and easy access to the tools for privacy.

Perhaps it's an indication of the decline of investigative journalism,
the number of people that are really doing investigative journalism,
that journalists aren't more up in arms about revelations, for
example, that many journalists are being surveilled, and it's probably
beyond the technical capabilities of most of your potential sources to
actually avert modern surveillance.

And in a world in which journalists are denied access to sources that
can speak up free of fear of governmental intrusion, I think this
shuts down an enormously important aspect of what makes democracy
work. I don't think you can have a healthy democracy without healthy
journalism, and I don't think you have healthy journalism without the
ability to conduct a private conversation.

And that includes not just what you're saying, but whom you're saying
it to. If every contact a journalist makes -- and the weight of that
contact: the number of minutes, the frequency, and such -- is something
that hundreds of thousands of analysts can get from a Google-like
search tool, I think that this makes serious investigative journalism
effectively impossible.

Copyright (c) 2015 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All Rights Reserved.

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