Computer scientists and cryptographers occupy some of the ivory tower’s highest floors. Among academics, their work is prestigious and celebrated. To the average observer, much of it is too technical to comprehend. The field’s problems can sometimes seem remote from reality.
But computer science has quite a bit to do with reality. Its practitioners devise the surveillance systems that watch over nearly every space, public or otherwise—and they design the tools that allow for privacy in the digital realm. Computer science is political, by its very nature.
That’s at least according to Phillip Rogaway, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Davis, who has helped create some of the most important tools that secure the Internet today. Last week, Rogaway took his case directly to a roomful of cryptographers at a conference in Auckland, New Zealand. He accused them of a moral failure: By allowing the government to construct a massive surveillance apparatus, the field had abused the public trust. Rogaway said the scientists had a duty to pursue social good in their work.
He likened the danger posed by modern governments’ growing surveillance capabilities to the threat of nuclear warfare in the 1950s, and called upon scientists to step up and speak out today, as they did then.
I spoke to Rogaway about why cryptographers fail to see their work in moral terms, and the emerging link between encryption and terrorism in the national conversation. A transcript of our conversation appears below, lightly edited for concision and clarity.
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