Mathematicians, why are you not speaking out?

Charles Seife
August 25, 2013


Most people don’t know the history of Von Neumann Hall, the nearly windowless building hidden behind the engineering quadrangle at Princeton. I found out my junior year, when, as a bright-eyed young math major, I was recruited to work at the National Security Agency.

Von Neumann Hall was the former site of the Institute for Defense Analyses, a math-heavy research organization that did work for an agency that, at that time, dared not speak its name. The close ties between Princeton and the NSA went back decades, I discovered, and some of the professors I had been learning from were part of a secret brotherhood of number jocks who worked on really tough math problems for the sake of national security. I was proud to join the fraternity—one that was far bigger than I had ever imagined. According to NSA expert James Bamford, the agency is the single largest employer of mathematicians on the planet. It’s a good bet that any high-quality math department of a reasonable size has a faculty member who’s done work for the NSA.

I worked for the NSA in 1992 and 1993 under the auspices of the Director’s Summer Program, which snaffles up hot young undergraduate math majors around the country each year. After clearing a security check—which included not just a polygraph exam but also a couple of FBI agents snooping around campus to see what mischief I had been up to—I wound up at Fort Meade, Md., for indoctrination.

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