[cryptography] Cryptographer Adi Shamir Prevented from Attending NSA History Conference

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Thu Oct 17 04:29:45 EDT 2013


Cryptographer Adi Shamir Prevented from Attending NSA History Conference

Categories: Science, Secrecy

In this email message to colleagues, Israeli cryptographer Adi Shamir
recounts the difficulties he faced in getting a visa to attend the 2013
Cryptologic History Symposium sponsored by the National Security Agency. Adi
Shamir is the “S” in the RSA public-key algorithm and is “one of the finest
cryptologists in the world today,” according to historian David Kahn. The NSA
Symposium begins tomorrow. For the reasons described below, Dr. Shamir will
not be there.

From: Adi Shamir
Date: October 15, 2013 12:16:28 AM EDT
Subject: A personal apology

The purpose of this email is to explain why I will not be able to attend the
forthcoming meeting of the History of Cryptology conference, even though I
submitted a paper which was formally accepted. As an active participant in
the exciting developments in academic cryptography in the last 35 years, I
thought that it would be a wonderful opportunity to meet all of you, but
unfortunately the US bureaucracy has made this impossible.

The story is too long to describe in detail, so I will only provide its main
highlights here. I planned to visit the US for several months, in order to
attend the Crypto 2013 conference, the History of Cryptology conference, and
to visit several universities and research institutes in between in order to
meet colleagues and give scientific lectures. To do all of these, 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.

To make a long story short, after applying some pressure and pulling a lot of
strings, I finally got the visa stamped in my passport on September 30-th,
exactly four months after filing my application, and way beyond the requested
start date of my visit. I was lucky in some sense, since on the next day the
US government went into shutdown, and I have no idea how this could have
affected my case. Needless to say, the long uncertainty had put all my travel
plans (flights, accomodations, lecture commitments, etc) into total disarray.

It turns out that I am not alone, and many foreign scientists are now facing
the same situation. Here is what the president of the Weizmann Institute of
Science (where I work in Israel) wrote in July 2013 to the US Ambassador in

“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.”

Even the president of the US National Academy of Science (of which I am a
member) tried to intervene, without results. He was very sympathetic, writing
to me at some stage:

“Dear Professor Shamir

I have been hoping, day by day, that your visa had come through. It is very
disappointing to receive your latest report. We continue to try by seeking
extra attention from the U. S. Department of State, which has the sole
authority in these matters. As you know, the officers of the Department of
State in embassies around the world also have much authority. I am personally
very sympathetic and hopeful that your efforts and patience will still yield
results but also realize that this episode has been very trying. We hope to
hear of a last-minute success.

Yours sincerely, Ralph J. Cicerone”

What does all of this have to do with the History of Cryptology conference?
In January 2013 I submitted a paper titled “The Cryptology of John Nash From
a Modern Perspective” to the conference, and a short time afterwards I was
told by the organizers that it was accepted. 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.”

I must admit that in my 35 years of attending many conferences, it had never
happened to me that an accepted paper of mine was yanked out from the
official program in such a unilateral way. However, since I never try to go
to places where I do not feel wanted, I decided to inform MIT that a window
had become available in my busy schedule. They immediately invited me to
visit them on October 17 and 18, and to give a major lecture during my visit.
Naturally, I accepted their gracious invitation.

The final twist in this saga happened a few days ago, when out of the blue I
was suddenly reinvited by the conference organizers to attend the event and
to present my paper. However, this is too late now, since I am already fully
committed to my visit to MIT.

So what is the bottom line of this whole unhappy episode? 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

Best personal wishes, and apologies for not being able to meet you in person,

Adi Shamir

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