US State Department: Let in cryptographers and other scientists

Predictably, my last post attracted plenty of outrage (some of it too vile to let through), along with the odd commenter who actually agreed with what I consider my fairly middle-of-the-road, liberal Zionist stance.  But since the outrage came from both sides of the issue, and the two sides were outraged about the opposite things, I guess I should feel OK about it.

Still, it’s hard not to smart from the burns of vituperation, so today I’d like to blog about a very different political issue: one where hopefully almost all Shtetl-Optimized readers will actually agree with me (!).

I’ve learned from colleagues that, over the past year, foreign-born scientists have been having enormously more trouble getting visas to enter the US than they used to.  The problem, I’m told, is particularly severe for cryptographers: embassy clerks are now instructed to ask specifically whether computer scientists seeking to enter the US work in cryptography.  If an applicant answers “yes,” it triggers a special process where the applicant hears nothing back for months, and very likely misses the workshop in the US that he or she had planned to attend.  The root of the problem, it seems, is something called the Technology Alert List (TAL), which has been around for a while—the State Department beefed it up in response to the 9/11 attacks—but which, for some unknown reason, is only now being rigorously enforced.  (Being marked as working in one of the sensitive fields on this list is apparently called “getting TAL’d.”)

The issue reached a comical extreme last October, when Adi Shamir, the “S” in RSA, Turing Award winner, and foreign member of the US National Academy of Sciences, was prevented from entering the US to speak at a “History of Cryptology” conference sponsored by the National Security Agency.  According to Shamir’s open letter detailing the incident, not even his friends at the NSA, or the president of the NAS, were able to grease the bureaucracy at the State Department for him.

It should be obvious to everyone that a crackdown on academic cryptographers serves no national security purpose whatsoever, and if anything harms American security and economic competitiveness, by diverting scientific talent to other countries.  (As Shamir delicately puts it, “the number of terrorists among the members of the US National Academy of Science is rather small.”)  So:

  1. Any readers who have more facts about what’s going on, or personal experiences, are strongly encouraged to share them in the comments section.
  2. Any readers who might have any levers of influence to pull on this issue—a Congressperson to write to, a phone call to make, an Executive Order to issue (I’m talking to you, Barack), etc.—are strongly encouraged to pull them.

33 Responses to “US State Department: Let in cryptographers and other scientists”

  1. wolfgang Says:

    >> was prevented from entering the US to speak at a “History of Cryptology” conference sponsored by the National Security Agency.

    And I think after what we learned about the NSA it should be the other way around: Both foreign *and* US mathematicians should refuse to participate in NSA-sponsored events.

  2. Amir Says:

    This makes me wonder…

    If Shamir was working for Israeli intelligence, and going to an NSA conference as a business trip, would he still be denied entry?

    In other words, is it easier for cryptographers that break American codes for their living to enter the US than for academic cryptographers?

  3. Jared Says:

    Regardless of what you think about the NSA, I would think that speaking at a “History of Cryptology” conference would be pretty unobjectionable.

  4. luca turin Says:

    Total foolishness. It is nevertheless remarkable, and I guess to America’s credit, that no amount of string pulling could get him in. I can think of no EU country where this would be the case, for better or —mostly— for worse.

  5. anon Says:

    Actually, the TAL list contains only ‘technologies and software’ associated with cryptography. Every time when I’m asked if I work in cryptography, I explain them that I do theoretical cryptography which is pure mathematics and has nothing to do with programming. It normally takes about 5-10 minutes to explain them that I’m not working with viruses and antiviruses etc. This works for me every year, I’ve never had this ‘special process’ after the interview.

  6. Bernard Chazelle Says:

    Scott: You write “Predictably, my last post attracted plenty of outrage (some of it too vile to let through), along with the odd commenter who actually agreed with what I consider my fairly middle-of-the-road, liberal Zionist stance. But since the outrage came from both sides of the issue…

    Could it be that the fate of the liberal Zionist today is that of someone standing between Donald Trump and a TV camera? Surely a noble position to occupy but not necessarily a safe one. Jonathan Freedland, in his fascinating review of Ari Shavit’s book, explains this phenomenon:

    “In the toxic environment that characterizes much, if not most, debate on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, a special poison is reserved for the liberal Zionist. Such a person, who stands by Israel even as he yearns for it to change, is fated to be hated by both camps: hawkish Zionists despise the liberal for going too far in his criticisms, accusing him of a hand-wringing betrayal of the cause that can only comfort the enemy, while anti-Zionists denounce the liberal for not going far enough, for failing to follow the logic of his position through to its conclusion and for thereby defending the indefensible. The liberal Zionist is branded either a hypocrite or an apologist or both. ”

  7. quax Says:

    Luca #4, curiously I had the exact opposite reaction, IMHO a security bureaucracy is most assuredly completely out of control if even the highest ranking connections into same security apparatus cannot exonerate somebody.

    It complements my experience with border crossing. These days entering the US is about as pleasant (if not less so) than entering East Germany at the heights of the cold war.

    Add to this the paranoid export restrictions, a foreigner catching a glance of a whiteboard with some cryptography math may constitute a violation.

    No doubt this will negatively impact research and economic development.

  8. anon #2 Says:

    This is only my personal experience (European foreign national doing cryptography research in the US), but I see no major increase in TAL cases related to cryptography.

    I personally never had issues. I was never asked explicitly about working on cryptography, despite paperwork hinting so. Graduate students or postdocs occasionally suffer delays (approx. 3-4 weeks) in getting F/J visas, especially when citizens of certain countries (India, China, …). This is not specific of cryptography, as the TAL appears to contain lots of other things.

    Other people may have different stories.

  9. asdf Says:

    Well if we combine

    1. William Binney’s assertion that the NSA records 80% of the world’s phone calls (

    2. The NSA claiming a national security exemption to Utah (desert state) law requiring public disclosure of its data center’s water consumption (since that would allow figuring out the power consumption, )

    3. Rapid advances in voice recognition software (automated voice mail transcription is sort of useful now, though it misses lots of words; compare that to the stuff available just a few years ago).

    We get: the NSA may be fixing up that data center for massive amounts of computation and not just storage. Binney’s claim that despite collecting all the data, they missed a lot of terror plots, misses the point. The real idea is that in 10 years, speech recognition gets almost as good as OCR is now. Then they can run all the collected audio through recognition and machine analysis, and build up a database of every extramarital affair in the world in which the participants talked on the phone.

    No wonder they want to stop the spread of cryptography.

  10. luca turin Says:

    quax #7 I think on balance you are probably right, and I agree with you that border control in the US is becoming increasingly unpleasant even when all your paperwork is in order.

    I hold an Italian passport and a green card. As it happens I was born in Beirut, and an immigration officer recently tried to “trick” me into speaking Arabic (of which I know not a word) by saying phrases in Arabic to see if I reacted.

    Re: string-pulling, I guess I was coming at this from an EU perspective, where a phone call from on high can fix _anything_.

  11. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    Sorry, this is unrelated to cryptography but might be of interest: My friend who is from India had to stay back 3 months when he visited home because of a background check and almost had his job offer rescinded. The reason? He works on NMR spectroscopy, and the word “nuclear” sparked suspicion.

  12. Michael Dixon Says:

    Here’s a related Hackernews posting:

    There seems to be some good information in there. In particular, there are a couple tidbits that would help scientists get through the process sooner.

    Hope that helps!

  13. William Hird Says:

    I can’t fathom the level of governmental paranoia about these crypto related issues. If a terrorist network wants to communicate in perfect secrecy for nefarious purposes, the technology for doing this already exists: the one-time pad cryptosystem and some 64GB memory sticks to store the pad. Sixty-four gigabytes is a LOT of pad for any field agent to send and receive messages , if you include a discrete re-padding operation then your pad is virtually unlimited. The only reason I can see for the present governmental policies and programs is for some form of totalitarian control ( the “new world order”?).

  14. Silas Barta Says:

    “No, no, I’m not working on cryptography at all! My research is *solely* focused on one-way permutations, factoring semi-primes, and elliptic curves. What could *that* have to do with cryptography?”

  15. Scott Says:

    Silas #14: ROFL! You may have just nailed this particular problem, so we can move on to the next.

  16. Sam Hopkins Says:

    With regard to the NSA and mathematics: it is probably worth linking to these articles published recently in the AMS- and

  17. Anon Says:

    I know it’s off-topic, but since this post started as follow-up by the previous 3 sentence post (and in case that wasn’t already done in the previous 250+ comments) I thought it might be fun to post this

    And on-topic – yes, the state department bureaucracy is laughable and laudable at the same time for the same reasons a comment above noted – in the US connection high up sometimes don’t cut you a break, and that’s refreshing for anyone who’s grown up elsewhere. If only it were that simple.

  18. Michael P Says:

    asdf #9: you don’t have to use a phone to be heard.

    Years ago I used to work on a voiceless speech recognition project. The primary component was a camera capturing movements of the speaker’s lips. We reached about 80% accuracy of speech recognition, comparable with voice recognition accuracy at that time.

    Have you seen any security cameras around?

  19. Krishna Says:

    People in US are paranoid about everything. Either too free or too tight on things upon catastrophe incidents. This is more of a culture phenomenon which is not surprisingly has paved it’s way into bureaucracy. A famous/leading actor from shahrukh khan was detained at New jersey airport khan is part of his name. Unless US understands how to identify the truth in such things it’s going to become worse loosing many talented and dedicated individuals to other countries. Unless some rude awakening happens something like real shortage of good scientists and engineers the immigration/homeland security policies will not change.

  20. Douglas Knight Says:

    I’d like to point out Gian-Carlo Rota, MIT mathematician, who taught a course on Heidegger.

  21. Sam Hopkins Says:

    Douglas Knight: indeed, Gian-Carlo Rota’s “Discrete Thoughts” and “Indiscrete Thoughts” are highly recommended and offer a perspective on math and its foundations (among other things) not commonly espoused.

  22. Scott Says:

    Douglas and Sam: While I immensely enjoyed reading Rota’s books, I confess that there was nothing he said that inspired me to want to go back and study Heidegger or other Continental philosophers. Indeed, Rota’s interest in Continental philosophy came across to me as an almost-religious personality quirk—just like there are other scientists I admire tremendously who are Christian or Orthodox Jewish or believe that Marlowe wrote Shakespeare’s plays, but they don’t let their beliefs about those matters influence their science, as Rota (to the best of my knowledge) didn’t let his Heideggerism affect his math.

  23. Douglas Knight Says:

    I’m not saying that the lone Rota should have much effect on your eigen-admiration; and having read him, it is reasonable for you to dismiss him entirely, as you dismiss Arendt, but I object to your sweeping statement that no scientist admires Heidegger.

    Which scientists are you thinking of who believe Marlowe wrote Shakespeare?

  24. Wesley Calvert Says:

    Didn’t I hear a story many years ago about some missed connection in which the US government could have had the Enigma machine long before the war?

    It seems like a high-resource country would benefit quite a lot by an open market in cryptologic ideas.

  25. Shmi Nux Says:

    Scott, you haven’t posted in a while, hopefully it’s not because your department asked you to refrain from controversial posts, or because a Berkeley-style leftist mob barricaded your office and cut off your network access.

    On an unrelated note, I am not sure if you read “hard” sci-fi, but if you do, I’d be interested to see your thoughts on the (in)accuracy of the description of quantum computing in Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2012 Nebula Award-winning novel 2312, where he talks about the Schor’s algorithm, complexity, decoherence, and mixed quantum/classical computation for an exponential speedup of ballistics calculations on solar-system scales. The physics in the novel seems to be 50/50 OK/nonsense, biology closer to 20/80, I wonder where his description of quantum computing lies.

  26. Scott Says:

    Shmi Nux #25: LOL! The reason I haven’t posted in a while is that I decided to spend at least 2 weeks catching up on “actual” work before returning to blogging.

    I haven’t read that novel by Kim Stanley Robinson, so can’t comment on it. I’ll put it on my stack of would-like-to-read, but it might be a while before I get to it. I read a lot of sci-fi when I was 11 and 12, but not that much since.

  27. William Hird Says:

    @ Wesley Calvert # 25
    Hi Wesley, not really sure what you are asking here. Are you saying because American banks and corporations funded and supplied Hitler’s war machine that they should have tended to Germany’s cryptographic aspirations as well ?

  28. J Says:

    Comment on next week’s Fields medal please after it is given and whether a computer scientist can win a Fields Medal

  29. Sam Hopkins Says:

    I think there is no doubt that a computer scientist who resolved P vs. NP would be awarded the Fields medal, right?

  30. A Says:

    Always annoying to cross the US border for non-residents. Hopefully things get better at some point, along with the sub-first world health care and safety situations. Meanwhile congrats to the countries that get the contributions from those people, hope they learn from the US where skillful (free speech, relative lack of corruption, etc.) too.

  31. Lemuel G. Abarte Says:

    Interesting that this matter has gone public on preventions for those going into cryptograhy. I took a course under Professor Dan Boneh of Stanford U. Curious was that my IP address is not from the US. When time came for downloading codes, I was prevented since I am not in the US.

  32. Daniel Moskovich Says:

    But since the outrage came from both sides of the issue, and the two sides were outraged about the opposite things, I guess I should feel OK about it.

    I think that arguing for correctness of your claim based on the fact that it’s criticized by both sides would constitute a logical fallacy.

  33. Scott Says:

    Daniel #32: For whatever arguments I can muster for my position, you’ll need to read the original thread. In the comment you quoted, I was only addressing a different, meta-question, one that’s constantly on my mind: should I feel bad about people attacking me? And while being attacked from both sides doesn’t constitute evidence for the correctness of my position, it’s decent evidence that, had I adopted a different position, I would still have been attacked.