No cutesy adversaries
December 6, 2015 6:56 AM   Subscribe

“I think the post-war turn towards social responsibility in science and engineering was less a turn than a sideways glance. .. If researchers like us were actually supposed to know or care about this stuff in any operationally significant way, well, I think we didn't get the memo.   So let me retransmit it. - Phillip Rogaway. The Moral Character of Cryptographic Work.

There is a variant of this talk given at UC San Diago on you youtube and their site, but his ASIACRYPT talk itself has not yet appeared online.
posted by jeffburdges (18 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

Excellent discussion at HN a few days ago.
posted by dmd at 7:16 AM on December 6, 2015

[trigger warning: obnoxious quote from Stanley Fish]
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 9:09 AM on December 6, 2015

"The universe believes in encryption.” - Julian Assange

"The universe doesn't understand number theory." -- me
posted by grobstein at 9:10 AM on December 6, 2015

“I think the post-war turn towards social responsibility in science and engineering was less a turn than a sideways glance. .. If researchers like us were actually supposed to know or care about this stuff in any operationally significant way, well, I think we didn't get the memo. So let me retransmit it.” - Phillip Rogaway. The Moral Character of Cryptographic Work.

Yeah, there are a handful of quotes from scientists who worked before and during WWII, explaining how science in the service of war was really dangerous, and I guess that left some legacy. But (from what I've seen) Rogaway is right that it didn't particularly stick.

Post-war, there was in fact a huge expansion in war science, and not a lot of resistance in the community. I mean, what researcher is going to turn down professorships, grants, new institutes and programs, etc.? Anyway, the professorships, grants, institutes and programs went to the researchers who said "Yes." The post-war expansion of US universities is mostly down to war science of various kinds (especially space).

There was some backlash in the universities, leading to a little more separation between them and stuff like the national defense labs. For some reason you can't find this on the wiki page for the Lincoln Lab, but in the '60s protests at MIT led to a lot of military research being moved out of the main Institute and to Lincoln Lab, and led to the Instrumentation Lab being spun off from the Institute (brief retrospective). But I don't think this really reflected ethical misgivings in the research community, so much as anti-war sentiment among students more generally.

(PS I would love to read a good history of MIT, if anyone knows one.)
posted by grobstein at 9:24 AM on December 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Not just the cryptography community, but also the whole field of computer science needs to hear this. I say this as a computer scientist. There's a mindset of, "Hey, not my fault, I'm just here to solve fun problems, it's the business's issue if they're taking my work and doing bad stuff with it." And that mindset is gross. We need to grow up.
posted by town of cats at 9:28 AM on December 6, 2015 [7 favorites]

Speaking of ethical misgivings among researchers, we were recently talking about the Ellsberg Paradox in one of my classes, and it occurred to me that Dan Ellsberg seems to have stopped publishing after he leaked the Pentagon Papers (duh I guess). Haven't been able to fully confirm, but it looks like he has no academic output between ~'70s and 2001, when he published a book on decision theory. Probably

And then I realized that most of the students have no idea who Ellsberg is, except that he's the author of Ellsberg (1961) and has a paradox named after him. They have no idea that he was a hero of conscience.

In this class, we are reviewing a whole array of results that were mostly discovered by people at RAND in the '50s and '60s, and it occurs to me that many of these guys were maybe potential Ellsbergs. Many of them must have had similar knowledge and opportunity, given the kind of stuff they did at RAND and the revolving door that then existed between RAND and the Pentagon. And Ellsberg was the only one to stand up, as far as I know. Dunno, speculating.
posted by grobstein at 9:38 AM on December 6, 2015 [5 favorites]

Well worth reading:

The Eccentric Genius Whose Time May Have Finally Come (Again) - The Atlantic, June 11, 2014

The Human Use of Human Beings [PDF] - Norbert Wiener

Norbert Wiener's politics and the history of cybernetics [PDF] - Mathieu Triclot
posted by 0rison at 9:44 AM on December 6, 2015 [5 favorites]

Today I learned Assange believes in Spinoza's god!
posted by bukvich at 9:47 AM on December 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

"This essay was set in motion by the courage of Edward Snowden."

Courage is Contagious
posted by TwoToneRow at 10:31 AM on December 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Conclusion to it all. As computer scientists and cryptographers, we are twice
culpable when it comes to mass surveillance: computer science created the
technologies that underlie our communications infrastructure, and that are now
turning it into an apparatus for surveillance and control; while cryptography
contains within it the underused potential to redirect this tragic turn.

And so forth, again and again. I appreciate his making the above comment because most of his concerns still originate outside of the scope of his problem, such as: capital resources, state or corporate control over media transmission and networking, legalities, cultural expectations and religious priorities, etc. In a word: politics. To most people, though, empowering jihadists and enforcing corporate-authored copyright law will never be socially balanced by facilitating the distribution of illegal drugs, child porn, money laundering, etc. But everyone wants their tax, legal, medical and school records to remain private. Those are government records for the most part. So why the anti-government sentiment in order to sell this thing? It's not just a mistake I fear. As companies collect real-time data on everyone, about everything, and then abuse their misplaced trust over and over, only one entity will remain to punish them (or even able to know about it). So the low level political discourse about the internet continues, with political sides unspoken, while anti-government sentiment flows freely (usually in terms of unspecified power, but always alluded as bad). The author above casually does this on page 25 of his essay. Thanks for the links.
posted by Brian B. at 11:41 AM on December 6, 2015

One of Phillip Rogaway's courses is technology and ethics, and his reading list was formative of my views when I came across it as a grad student. (Incidentally, via metafilter!) I'm glad things have changed somewhat; at my previous institution, it is now required of all engineering graduate students to take an ethics class. But I suspect that tends to be a minority practice in STEM.
posted by polymodus at 12:13 PM on December 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

The Revolt of the Engineers covers even more depressing ground - engineers' trading a norm of challenging dumb projects on professional grounds by, approximately, the occasional chance to join management.
posted by clew at 7:27 PM on December 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

grobstein: in this context and with specific reference to the student protests leading to the defense research spinoffs, The University and Military Research: Moral Politics at M.I.T. (Dorothy Nelkin, 1972) is your best bet. Several of the later chapters of Becoming MIT: Moments of Decision (ed. David Kaiser, 2013) are also relevant.
posted by nonane at 6:28 PM on December 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Thanks nonane! I'm interested in the more general history of MIT, too, if you have any other recommendations.
posted by grobstein at 7:52 PM on December 7, 2015

Very nice blog post by Scott Aaronson on the Google announcement about D-Wave.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:58 PM on December 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Interesting comment by Adi Shamir with a response by Rogaway.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:56 PM on December 14, 2015

« Older Subpolar Express   |   Give 'em the raspberry for the Holidays this year! Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments