The Research that Would Frustrate “the Facebooks”

Twice in just a couple of weeks, I heard a reference to Phil Rogaway’s thought-provoking talk: “The Moral Character of Cryptographic Work:” slides, video. I truly believe in the social obligations of scientists, and specifically of computer scientists. As for the specific points made by Phil, there are arguments both ways (see for example, the discussion with Adi Shamir starting at 1:03:50).

In this post, I would like to raise one of Phil’s 12 specific suggestions: “Figure out what research would frustrate the NSA. Then do it.” I have quite a bit of sympathy for this point of view. But in the world we live in, isn’t the view of government as “enemy number one” a bit outdated? How about the thousands of companies spying on us constantly and carelessly abusing our personal information? And what research would frustrate those privacy violators? Perhaps research on the most effective possible governmental regulations ?!? Oops …

Please let us know what you think.

Full disclosure: I have been employed by three big technology companies and have recently received research fellowship from a fourth (to study privacy). I was also, and still am, the recipient of governmental research grants. So I guess that so far my research is more pleasing than frustrating to both companies and governments.

4 Comments on The Research that Would Frustrate “the Facebooks”

  1. That’s an interesting discussion. I feel strongly that scientists have only one responsibility: searching for truth. In particular, scientists, including computer scientists, should refrain, as much as they can, from directing their research into questions of current societal concerns, or societal benefits.

    I thus find cryptography, for instance, or privacy, for that matter, not a very important branch of science (it is an important engineering discipline though), in as much that these areas do not seem to say something fundamental about reality. In contrast to, e.g., machine learning, computational complexity or quantum information.

    So for that matter I would suggest my own slogan for “good research”:
    “Do the research that would frustrate social justice warriors (SJW)!”

    Perhaps more accurately: “Do the research that would frustrate both social justice warriors (SJW), the government and the big corporations!”

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    • Just to point out the great intellectual achievements of cryptography and privacy, which I suspect you are not aquatinted with (in particular, separating the achievements of complexity theory from those of cryptography is not easy)

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  2. Cryptographer // April 9, 2018 at 9:32 am // Reply

    There is some context behind Rogaway’s assertion, namely the sense that the NSA has had a negative impact on the focus of cryptography research in the US. We can debate whether this was targeted or not (Rogaway’s story about his own CAREER award certainly hints at some degree of intention), but fact is, areas like cryptanalysis have almost entirely disappeared from the US landscape. But things are indeed a bit more nuanced than Rogaway represents them. Without DoD funding we would not have tor, for example.

    Other than that, the development of privacy enhancement technologies bothers Facebook as much as authorities, so I think the goals are largely aligned …

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  3. “morality” is a tricky word. what if he talked about the “politics” of technology instead? that reminds me of bitcoin, which will continue to have massive, unforeseeable implications.

    NSA surveillance is a big deal. 9/11 will never be forgotten. esp in the lawbooks. we are still living in Police State Lite due to it. technology and its intense form, computer science, is a modern pandoras box. rogaway got some criticism but think hes got a brilliant pov that deserves wider attn. the broader topic is “ethics of technology” and its very crosscutting. think also about the way that robotics/ AI might replace jobs, etc… AI safety issue etc, some elite computer scientists now taking all this much more seriously and even actively researching/ contributing to the discussion.

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