How The Government Blocked An Expert From Attending Its Own Cryptology Symposium

from the government-induced-xenophobia dept

One of the three crafters of the RSA algorithm, Adi Shamir (who is Israeli), has been effectively locked out of attending the NSA-sponsored Cryptologic History Symposium, thanks to a combination of bureaucratic inefficiency and the US government’s ongoing paranoia about all things terrorism.

Shamir has written a long apology for his inability to attend which details the multiple events that led to his unavailability despite having a paper of his formally accepted by the Symposium. It begins with a series of delays centered around acquiring a visa for his visit to the US.

I needed a new J1 visa, and I filed the visa application at the beginning of June, two and a half months before my planned departure to the Crypto conference in mid August. I applied so early since it was really important for me to attend the Crypto conference – I was one of the founders of this flagship annual academic event (I actually gave the opening talk in the first session of the first meeting of this conference in 1981) and I did my best to attend all its meetings in the last 32 years.

Despite this early start, it took four months before his visa was finally stamped on his passport — September 30th, to be exact, narrowly avoiding the government shutdown that would have likely prevented his visit entirely.

And it wasn’t just Shamir who had difficulty securing a visa. It appears the US government’s reticence and reluctance to approve visas for certain people has had a deleterious effect on other foreign scientists. Shamir quotes a letter from the head of Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science stating that more scientists are choosing to “opt out” rather than deal with the laborious approval process.

“I’m allowing myself to write you again, on the same topic, and related to the major difficulties the scientists of the Weizmann Institute of Science are experiencing in order to get Visa to the US. In my humble opinion, we are heading toward a disaster, and I have heard many people, among them our top scientists, saying that they are not willing anymore to visit the US, and collaborate with American scientists, because of the difficulties. It is clear that scientists have been singled out, since I hear that other ‘simple citizen’, do get their visa in a short time.”

After Shamir’s paper was accepted by the symposium, he contacted the NSA, hoping that it could intervene to get his visa approved in time to make the conference.

In July 2013 I told the NSA-affiliated conference organizers that I was having some problems in getting my visa, and gently asked whether they could do something about it. Always eager to help, the NSA people leaped into action, and immediately sent me a short email written with a lot of tact:

“The trouble you are having is regrettable…Sorry you won’t be able to come to our conference. We have submitted our program and did not include you on it.”

Such helpful folks at the NSA. “That sucks for you. We’ll just cross your name off the list.” Shamir says he’s never seen one of his accepted papers treated so cavalierly in his 35 years of attending conferences. (I would imagine he himself hasn’t been treated that cavalierly either.) Perceiving this to be a dead end (and not feeling like attending an event where it seemed he “wasn’t wanted”), Shamir scheduled an appearance at MIT — only to be contacted far too late to change plans with a “reinvitation” to the NSA-sponsored event.

Shamir is clearly irritated by this lumbering bureaucracy and a visa process that has succumbed to intelligence agency/administration paranoia that clearly perceives foreigners, especially those in scientific fields, to be a “threat,” rather than the non-harmful, non-dangerous human beings they are. If active terrorists only make up a very slim percentage of the world’s population, why does the government continue to treat a large percentage of certain non-US citizens as potential threats?

Shamir’s final paragraph takes aim at the painful visa process and adds a hilarious slam against the “dangerous foreigners” mentality that overrides logic and common sense in certain government agencies.

Clearly, no one in the US is trying to see the big picture, and the heavy handed visa bureaucracy you have created seems to be collapsing under its own weight. This is not a security issue – I have been to the US close to a hundred times so far (including some multi-year visits), and had never overstayed my visas. In addition, the number of terrorists among the members of the US National Academy of Science is rather small. As a friend of the US I am deeply worried that if you continue to delay visas in such a way, the only thing you will achieve is to alienate many world-famous foreign scientists, forcing them to increase their cooperation with European or Chinese scientists whose countries roll the red carpet for such visits. Is this really in the US best interest?

Shamir’s criticism is dead-on. The overriding mentality post-9/11 throws everything out and starts at square one, even if it’s someone like Shamir, who has visited the country hundreds of times. Apparently, every time someone visiting on a visa exits the country and returns to their homeland, they’re opening themselves up to radicalization by our nation’s unquantifiable and unverifiable “enemies.” The post-9/11 climate of fear doesn’t allow anyone to build up a track record of successful, peaceful, non-terrorist-related visits to the US. It’s a blank slate every time.

As Shamir points out, the long-term repercussions of this mindset will be a reduction in cooperation and shared knowledge which will likely result in the US falling behind other countries in terms of technological and scientific advancement. Just as certainly as we view certain bigot-heavy areas of our country as “backwards,” our country’s xenophobic, supposedly “anti-terrorist” policies will soon see our country viewed as the world’s Birmingham, Alabama.

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Comments on “How The Government Blocked An Expert From Attending Its Own Cryptology Symposium”

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Applesauce says:

Terminally Stupid

It is unrealistic to expect a terminally stupid government to know what it’s best interests are, much less act on them.

To some extent, this represents evolution in action: the stupid wither and die, tho it may take a while. It’s kinda like a dinosaur with an infection in it’s tail. The poison will reach the brain eventually, but it’s a long, slow process along the sluggish nervous system.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: America's Problem


The Tea Party did it and scored, they just didn’t have any plans or draft laws in place.

You don’t need to elect “better” representatives, you will get none, a government is a gigantic creature that spreads far and wide along many fields, there is no person alive capable of being knowledgeable at all of them, so it doesn’t matter who you elect really, what it does matter is if that person listen, the public needs socket puppets.

The public needs to start public debate and creation of laws, the public needs a paralel system in which they debate and create laws and then chose to elect somebody to put them to a vote.

Richard (profile) says:

Standard US Practice

This is standard US practice I’m afraid. SHamir is far from being the only one.

Appararently double Olympic Gold winner Mo Farah gets stopped and hassled by US immigration/customs every time he travels to the US. He even tried waving his Gold medals at the officials om one occasion – it had no effect on the jobsworths.

It seems that being called “Mohammed” is enough to get you classified as a threat – even if you are a well known international sportsman.

JarHead says:

Re: Standard US Practice

In where I come from, it is known for a fact that if your name sounds arabic and/or islamic, you can kiss visa to US goodbye. The rejection rate for those people is 99.99%. Even if you fight for it, and lucky enough, you’ll have to wait at least 43 days for your papers to be shipped, reviewed, and considered at US homeland.

It doesn’t matter who you are, unless you have some pull to make it a diplomatic disaster for the US.

out_of_the_blue says:

So why we would want anyone here to help NSA?

We The People should be happy whenever NSA is prevented from either good will or new techniques. But this seems to be portrayed not for humor or cheering the NSA getting bad PR, but as making entire US “the world’s Birmingham, Alabama”, whatever that means. (Seems to be a foreigner’s perspective that’s not to my knowledge a big point among we natives…)

Anonymous Coward says:

I've got it!

The CPB/INS/whatevertheycallthemselvesthiselectioncycle just needs to issue a new T-1 “Terrorist” visa. Since terrorists never lie and would always pick the appropriate visa to match their purpose of their visit, we could easily weed out the true threats while streamlining the process for everyone else.

Brilliant, I tell you!

Anonymous Coward says:

and Israel is a US ally

Remember, Israel has a Memorandum of Understanding with the NSA setting forth the conditions under which elements of Israeli intelligence get access to unfiltered NSA intercepts (which according to the memo, may include NSA intercepts of internal US government communications) — but their crypto guys can’t get a visa?

Anonymous Coward says:

typical USA authority approach.

‘we dont want you to say anything, so we’ll do whatever we can to be arse holes and stop you from attending and therefore being able to say anything. it is beside the point that what you’re going to say will be beneficial to the USA as well as elsewhere. we can stop you, so we will, end of story!’

Anonymous Coward says:

Shamir is clearly irritated by this lumbering bureaucracy and a visa process that has succumbed to intelligence agency/administration paranoia that clearly perceives foreigners, especially those in scientific fields, to be a “threat,” rather than the non-harmful, non-dangerous human beings they are.

What did he expect, having an Islamic-sounding name while attempting to enter a country whose Military Industrial Complex is dominated by crazy right-wingers who deem anyone who questions them a “Liberal Socialist,” and therefore an enemy of the state? /s

Seriously, though, they need to stop the stupidity. It’s embarrassing the country. As a moderate conservative, I’m mortified by reports like this. It makes us look bad.

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