Of Mathematics, Congressional Briefings, and President Trump’s National Security Strategy

On December 6, Shafi Goldwasser — RSA Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT — spoke at the U.S. Capitol on “Cryptography: How to Enable Privacy in a Data-Driven World.”  Dr. Goldwasser will take up a new post on January 1, 2018 as director of the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing at the University of California, Berkeley; the Simons Institute made a film of Dr. Goldwasser’s experience visiting “the Hill” and with members of Congress. Her talk was the latest in our biennial Congressional Briefings series run jointly with the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI).

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (CA 12) and Representatives Jerry McNerney (CA 9) and Daniel Lipinski (IL 3) were on hand to give remarks and provide their support for the mathematical sciences and federal funding of basic scientific research.

Our next briefing will take place in April or May; stay tuned!

Dr. Goldwasser’s pioneering work in the field of cryptography examines how we share and receive information. The enormous amount of data currently collected offers great opportunities to achieve medical breakthroughs, smart infrastructure, economic growth through consumer targeting, and surveillance for national security. This data collection, however, seems to stand in contradiction to patients’ rights, consumers’ privacy, unfair pricing, and the “Basic Right to be Left Alone.” Dr. Goldwasser’s presentation addressed how modern encryption methods, zero-knowledge proofs, and multi-party secure computation make progress on sharing information while simultaneously maintaining privacy. Zero-knowledge proofs are powerful tools in the design of cryptographic protocols. The notion was developed in the 1980s by Dr. Goldwasser, and MIT colleagues Silvio Micali and Charles Rackoff. In 2013, Goldwasser and Micali were awarded the Turing Award for their work on cryptography.

Her talk was timely. National security is a top priority for the Trump administration. But what, exactly, is meant by “national security”? The opening Wikipedia line asserts that it “refers to the security of a nation state, including its citizenseconomy, and institutions, and is regarded as a duty of government.” Later on, we read – on this same Wikipedia page – that the “concept of national security remains ambiguous, having evolved from simpler definitions which emphasised freedom from military threat and from political coercion.” Part of it certainly includes ensuring safety from military attacks. It is now construed more broadly and protecting our national security includes a wide range of efforts aimed at everything from protecting citizens from insecurities due to climate change (e.g., food insecurity) to protecting against cyber-attacks.

The National Security Act of 1947 and its amendments mark the federal government’s firm commitment to protecting its citizens from military threat. The 1947 version of the law created the agency which later became the Department of Defense, and established the National Security Council as well as the Central Intelligence Agency. In 1949, the Council became part of the Executive Office of the President and our first National Security Advisor Robert Cutler began in that role in 1953. The current advisor is Herbert Raymond “H.R.” McMaster. His view on cybersecurity is that cyber-terrorism is a serious threat to the U.S. Professor Goldwasser’s talk focused on cybersecurity, and keeping us safe in in “cyberspace”.

Less than two weeks after her talk, President Trump unveiled his National Security Strategy (NSS) – a political document drafted with oversight from McMaster. These annual reports to Congress are required by the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Department Reorganization Act of 1986. However, only seven have been produced since 2000.

This one has received much commentary in the press, and I won’t write about that at all. You can google and quickly find opinions – both positive and negative – from within the U.S. and from news sources around the world.

What does it mean for mathematicians and other scientists?

The Trump Administration’s NSS indicates their understanding that cyberspace is a critical part to practically every aspect of national security. It has been noted that the document has entirely dismissed climate change. Interestingly, the statement refers a few times to universities, asserting that the U.S. “must continue to attract the innovative and the inventive, the brilliant and the bold. We will encourage scientists in government, academia, and the private sector to achieve advancements across the full spectrum of discovery, from incremental improvements to game-changing breakthroughs.” This would be done, in part, by improving STEM education and is done in an effort to “Promote American Prosperity.” Those of us in the mathematical sciences might want to take note that data science and encryption are specifically pointed out as areas that will be pursued and promoted. Or not; Newsweek explains “why it is pure fantasy to believe that the National Security Strategy will drive policy in the Trump administration.”

 

 

About Karen Saxe

Since January 1, 2017, Karen Saxe is Director of the Washington Office of the AMS which works to connect the mathematics community with Washington decision-makers who impact science funding. Before joining the AMS, Karen was DeWitt Wallace Professor in the Department of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Over many years she has contributed time to the AMS, MAA, and AWM, including service as vice president of the MAA and in policy and advocacy work with all three. She was the 2013-2014 AMS-AAAS Science & Technology Policy Congressional Fellow, working for Senator Al Franken on education issues, with focus on higher education and STEM education. In Minnesota she has served on the Citizens Redistricting Commission following the 2010 census and serves on the Common Cause Minnesota Redistricting Leadership Circle. She has three children and, when not at work especially enjoys being with them and reading, hiking, skiing, and sharing good food and wine and beer with family and friends.
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