The coming politicization of mathematics and computer science

Increasingly, ordinary people encrypt their internet communications. Some want to share files. Some are worried about the increasing surveillance and threats of surveillance of Internet data that is taking place in many corners of the world. ACTA, Hadopi, data retention would be a few examples. People may simply wish to keep their data private, even in cases when the data is not objectionable. Others, hopefully not so ordinary people, have an acute need to hide from authorities of some form or another, maybe because they actually have a criminal intent, or maybe because they are regime critics in repressive countries. Maybe they are submitting data to sites like Wikileaks.

Various technologies have come out of academic experiments, volunteer work and government sponsored research to assist with encrypted communication. PGP/GnuPG and SSH are classic mainstays. Onion routing, as implemented in the TOR system, is an effective way of concealing the true origin and destination of data being sent around. Darknet systems like the I2P project aim to build a complete infrastructure for an entirely new kind of Internet, piggybacking on the old one but with anonymity and encryption as first class fundamental features.

I think we are only at the start of a coming era of political conflicts centered around communications technology, and that more and more issues will have to be ironed out in the coming years and decades. The stakes are high. On one hand control and political stability, on the other hand individual rights and democratic progress. This is not new. One thing that I think is potentially new and interesting though, is how mathematics and computer science ought to become increasingly sensitive and political in the coming years.

Today disciplines like genetics and stem cell research are considered controversial research areas by some people since they touch on the very foundations of what we think of as life. Weapons research of all kinds is considered controversial for obvious reasons, and the development of a weapon on the scale of nuclear bombs would completely shift the global power structure.  One fundamental building block of communications control is the ability to encrypt and to decrypt. These abilities are ultimately limited by the frontiers of mathematical research. Innovations such as the Skein hash function directly affect the cryptographic power balance.

Most of the popular varieties of encryption in use today can be overcome, given that the adversary has sufficient computing power and time. In addition, human beings often compromise their keys, trust the wrong certificates, or act in ways that diminish the security that has been gained. Encryption is not absolute unless the fact that something has been encrypted has been perfectly hidden. Rather, it is a matter of economics, of making it very cheap to encrypt data,and very expensive for unintended receivers to decrypt it.

It is not possible to freeze encryption at a certain arbitrary level, or to restrict the use of it. Computers are inherently general purpose, and software designed for one purpose can almost always be used for another. If the situation is driven to its extreme, we might identify two possible outcomes: either general purpose computers are forbidden or restricted, or uncontrolled, strongly encrypted communication becomes the norm. Christopher Kullenberg has touched on this topic in Swedish.

Those who would rather not see a society where widespread encryption is commonplace would perhaps still want to have what they see as desirable effects of computerisation. In their ideal world they would pick and choose what people can do with computers, in effect giving a list of permitted and prohibited uses. But this is not how general purpose computers work. They are programmable, and people can construct software that does what they want. If the introduction of non-authorised software somehow is prohibited, and all applications must be checked by some authority, applications can still usually be used for purposes they were not designed for. This generality of purpose simply cannot be removed from computers without making them useless – at least that is how it seems today. It seems that it would take a new fundamental model of computation that selectively prohibits certain uses is needed in order to make this happen. (In order to make sure that this kind of discovery is not put to use by the “other camp”, those of us who believe in an open society should try to find it, or somehow establish the fact that it cannot be constructed.)

Mathematics now stands ever more closely connected with political power. Mathematical advances can almost immediately increase or decrease the resistance to information flow (given that somebody incorporates the advances into usable software). The full consequences of this are something we have yet to see.

Category: Computer science | Tags: , , , , , 6 comments »

6 Responses to “The coming politicization of mathematics and computer science”

  1. Around the interwebs | Intensifier

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  2. xor

    It does not matter what people think and believe for as long as they do not allow the nations to

    1) disallow people to have secrets [= outlawing cryptography]
    2) turn Our computers into Their Gadgets [Trusted Computing, the Chinese Green Dame and not-yet-jailbreaked iPhones are the problems here]
    3) completely and utterly turns the internet into a one-way communications medium [extreme forms of anti-net neutrality]

    To do any of the above, the nations need to seize control over all of our communications. It is difficult not to argue that a nation with such control is not a complete dictatorship.

    My point:

    For as long as we do not have to obey authorities at every single instant when we communicate with each others over the digital networks, there will be people that create software for the purpose to avoid censorship and guarantee free speech.

    Crypto-anarchy is the art of reshaping our world by adding infrastructure. It is not possible to stop this revolution without advocating an ape-shit crazy dictatorship.

    Its binary: Either we have ALL the benefits of free speech, or we get none of them.

    Hopefully, the programs will become so simple to use that any anarchist, activist, dissident and file sharer out there can use them to organize and communicate freely.

  3. soliptic

    I’m sure you’re familiar with some of the N.S.A.’s activity in the last few decades. This activity is documented well in James Bamford’s “The Puzzle Palace.” The N.S.A. is a governmental organization that is so secretive that it’s very existence was denied for years after it’s inception. At least in the past, it has been the world’s largest employers of mathematicians in the world. Among other extreme mechanisms proposed to control information, the N.S.A. proposed a legally mandated agreement with communication device manufacturers that would allow the N.S.A.–and in theory only the N.S.A.–direct access to any of our encrypted communications (as long as they went through the proper judicial channels to get approval–much like wiretapping is done).

    The N.S.A. has had numerous other battles with the public in which they have resorted to extreme tactics to get access to domestic communication, and they have been particularly interested in controlling how and how well our communication can be encrypted. This has resulted in a intellectual resistance by individuals outside of the N.S.A. known as “Cypherpunks.” The previous comment involved this resistance, I believe.

    Anyhow, it seems to me that, given the N.S.A.’s already widespread involvement, and the subsequent international resistance to this involvement, the war and it’s consequences have been well under way for decades.

  4. johan

    xor: Yes, it seems that you are right. If developments continue as they have been, it seems we are on the course to either crypto-anarchy or surveillance dictatorship. A cryptographic and computational arms race, a temporary advantage, would be the way to accelerate or decelerate the development, depending on which side you are on.

    soliptic: Yes, I suppose none of this is new, that this conflict has always been going on, but ordinary people have never sent such a large fraction of their everyday communications through the internet as they are now. That means the significance is greater than it’s ever been. It’s gone from a niche concern to gradually being a mainstream concern I think.

  5. soliptic

    A coworker just informed me that Apple has said they will stop supporting Java in later releases of OS X. The upshot of the conversation was that he speculates Apple is giving 3rd party developers the finger because they ultimately want to position software distribution on the Mac in a similar way that it’s distributed on the iPhone and iPad. That is, they would distribute all software through an App store that they control.

    This seemed frighteningly relevant to your speculation on the future control and distribution of applications.

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