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'Math minus militarism': US mathematicians disrupt NSA-sponsored maths convention

Mathematicians and activists work to stop NSA recruitment at the world's largest maths gathering
Activists hold a banner reading "MATH MINUS MILITARISM" next to a table for the NSA during a job recruitment fair at the Joint Mathematics Meeting on 5 January 2023.
Activists hold a banner reading "MATH MINUS MILITARISM" next to a table for the NSA during the Joint Mathematics Meeting at The Hynes Convention Center in Boston, Massachusetts, on 5 January 2023 (Courtesy of Muslim Justice League)

A small group of mathematicians and activists disrupted an annual mathematics conference this week held in Boston, Massachusetts, where they worked to stop the recruitment of mathematicians to the US's National Security Agency (NSA).

On Thursday, at the Joint Mathematics Meeting, the largest annual mathematics gathering in the world, around ten members of the Just Mathematics Collective (JMC) and another ten members of the Muslim Justice League (MJL) entered hall C of the Hynes Convention Center during the career fair with a massive banner reading: "MATH MINUS MILITARISM".

They then held up the banner and passed out pamphlets explaining how the NSA - the largest employer of mathematicians in the US - has been spying on American citizens for the past two decades, and that by working for the agency, mathematicians could be complicit in this.

"We are here in protest of the influence that surveillance and military agencies have on the mathematics community, specifically the presence of the National Security Agency (NSA) and any other defense agencies recruiting at JMM," the pamphlet read.

"We do not discuss the NSA's harms in the abstract; real people (including mathematicians) are affected by the NSA's surveillance, racial and religious profiling, and criminalization of entire communities."

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The activists said there was a lot of positive feedback from attendees at the convention, as 70 people signed a pledge not to work or collaborate with the NSA. The JMC itself has about 170 members.

Tarik Aougab, one of the founders of the JMC, told Middle East Eye that the NSA hires "dozens of mathematicians every year, largely by coming to conferences like this", where they present themselves as "this very benevolent, very cool organisation where you get to come and work on hard problems".

The disruption "represents a pretty significant escalation in our campaign by actually coming and being in person and confronting the conference's willingness to continue working so closely with NSA by having them at their events", Aougab said.

He added that while one of their goals was to actively stop the NSA from recruiting - they stood next to the NSA's table at the convention - the JMC also wanted to make sure they did not come across as intimidating so they could better connect with the attendees.

"A lot of mathematicians don't necessarily have huge cultural exposure to this sort of direct action," he said.

"And this was strategic in order to get our audience to sympathise and empathise with why we're there."

Eventually, the group of activists was asked to leave following opposition from the American Mathematical Society (AMS), a major conference organiser, according to the JMC.

Scott Turner, director of communications at AMS, told MEE that it was only after "activists disrupted the activities of attendees, such as stepping between attendees and career fair tables" that they were escorted out.

Turner added that the AMS and the JMM convention allow critical voices, and included a morning session on Thursday titled, "#Disrupt JMM: Re-centering humanity in the mathematical community". Members can also express opposition to the AMS relationship with the NSA through its journal.

"The mathematics community has significant ties to the National Security Agency (NSA), which employs a large number of mathematicians. Additionally, many academic mathematicians work for the NSA during summers and sabbaticals," Turner told MEE.

"The AMS recognises that some members of the mathematics community perceive a relationship with the NSA to be problematic. For this reason, that relationship is routinely examined by the AMS Committee on the Profession (CoProf)."

At this year's convention, the NSA became a JMM Gold Sponsor for $7,500, which gave the agency booth space and logo placement throughout meeting materials. The sponsorship fees are used to offset rental costs of the convention center facilities, according to Turner.

NSA surveillance

The disruption on Thursday was part of a year-and-half-long campaign started by the JMC called, "Mathematics Beyond Secrecy and Surveillance", where the group had been urging mathematicians across the country to sign its pledge not to work with the NSA.

"If you sign here, it means you're agreeing not to collaborate in any way with the NSA. It means you're agreeing not to apply for any NSA-related grants," Aougab said.

"We also don't want people writing letters of recommendation for NSA-related jobs. We want to kind of attack the pipeline between the math world and the surveillance state world."

'It's so important to see people in this field actually risking their own careers to take a stance against this'

- Fatema Ahmad, Muslim Justice League

Surveillance operations by the NSA greatly expanded after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, and the phone calls of hundreds of millions of Americans have been tracked by the government since then, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

In 2013, The Guardian first reported that the NSA was collecting the telephone records of tens of millions of Americans. It was later revealed that the source of the information was NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The report was followed by further reports that the NSA was tapping directly into the servers of nine internet firms, including Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, to track online communication in a programme known as Prism.

Up until that point, intelligence officials publicly stated that the NSA never knowingly collected information on Americans. After the programme's exposure, American officials argued that the spying had played a crucial role in fighting domestic extremism.

In 2014, The Intercept reported that the NSA had also been involved in spying on several prominent and public Muslim-American figures.

Fatema Ahmad, executive director of the Muslim Justice League, told Middle East Eye that her organisation was proud to stand alongside the JMC and assist in their efforts to raise awareness about the intersection of mathematics and surveillance.

"It's just so important for me as a Muslim who was impacted by [surveillance], who sees how not just Muslims, but [how] many communities are impacted by this surveillance," Ahmad said.

"It's so important to see people in this field actually risking their own careers to take a stance against this."

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