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Adi Shamir Prevented from Attending Crypto and Cryptology Conferences (ncl.ac.uk)
353 points by cantrevealname on Oct 17, 2013 | hide | past | web | favorite | 102 comments

My visa takes a long while.

Not quite as long as it took Adi Shamir, but long.

On average it takes about 14 weeks to get a visa, but on occasion it has taken many many months.

I've done the calculations, the worst-case scenario for the full process is 32 weeks. It's never actually taken that long, but it's not been far off.

I remember having to explain to Microsoft that they needed to write a sponsor/supporting letter (for the US embassy) more than half a year in advance of any potential visit to Redmond that I'd be working at. As this was for DAC (Developer Advisory Council) meetings that Microsoft only scheduled a month in advance they found themselves in a dilemma over this. Thankfully they agreed, and their legal department would author letters that a meeting would likely occur requiring my attendance, but it was always a slog of a process.

For those wondering, I was shortly married to a US citizen and I speculate that this triggers some flag or signal that makes them think I want to stay there (I don't). I also have an interesting past, having been homeless for a while. Who knows though, the system doesn't supply answers. It's a black box process.

It's a nightmare process that doesn't end when you have a visa. On arrival I experience the joys of "secondary", and being sat in a waiting room for many hours before a 10-second interview in which they let me go my way.

Every part of the experience is a miserable one, always with the threat of an axe over the visit.

The vast majority of the time I have been invited, or had opportunities to visit, I just do not choose to visit the USA.

What has been your the worst experience in the "secondary".

I had the dubious privilege of being sent to secondary upon arrival in Houston earlier this year.

The experience reminded me of old Soviet Union or something out of Kafka.

My wait was not very long maybe 30 minutes and after that I was sent on my way without any interview or anything, but those were some extremely long minutes.

I first made the mistake of sitting down in the "comfy" chair, which apparently was reserved for those poor souls who have to remain in secondary overnight or longer.

Then I noticed a sign No Electronic Devices Allowed, which meant no tablet, no e-reader no nothing. So better bring a book ("Consolation of Philosophy" perhaps?).

There were no progress or status updates or anything. I saw some misplaced NATO soldiers sent on their way quickly, while an elderly Russian emigree couple was berated for leaving US to travel.

Then there were people in the comfy chairs who had resigned to their fate and simply were sleeping or pretending to.

Again, this doesn't sound that bad, but the problem was that there was absolutely no indication on how long this process could take. No queue numbers no nothing.

I am supposed to go to US again soon, but I am extremely wary now.

What is the worst experience in the secondary that you've experienced?

The worst was the first time.

I didn't know what to expect or how long it might take, and I wasn't as prepared as I could be.

You sit there sweating, wondering what's happening and why there is an issue. And you want to help, and offer information that might smooth the process or speed it up, but they're not interested in your opinion they will take their time to determine whatever it is that they are looking for from other parties.

That first time I was asked for paperwork that I didn't have on me, things stored in email were useless to me (I couldn't turn on the laptop, it wouldn't be trusted as information, etc), and I'd left most details in my laptop except for the hotel details.

It's the sitting there, not knowing, as hours drift by and you wonder whether your bags are still safe as they sit on the baggage collection belt. As you wonder whether the hotel has re-sold your room as you are a no-show now. Whether the public transport still runs or whether you have to get an expensive taxi.

And all the time you know you're held in this interim place and there's definitely no guarantee you'll be let through. So there's a fear that you could be going home and whatever plans you've made will come to nought, and that you'd be humiliated by the process as you'd have to communicate to peers or potential clients that sorry you're unable to meet them.

The isolation is the hardest bit the first time this happens.

I've never had a visa or entry declined, and whilst secondary can take hours (of sitting in silence as the fear touches everyone at some point) it's only taken a few seconds once I'm finally called and the staff are always polite and as friendly as you imagine they could be.

In preparation just print everything you could possibly need: contact details, meeting details, entry tickets to conferences, work schedule, accommodation details, things to prove you have plans to leave. Make sure that people on your contact list know that they may be called (they were my first time, but to my knowledge they no longer are). Take a book or two. And put a few snacks in your bag from the departure airport.

Nowadays I just read as peacefully as I can. Sometimes on a busy flight, if it's a large conference or event there will be someone I know also in the tech industry and attending something. So when that happens I find it can be a good time to have a chat and catch up with someone.

Secondary takes hours, anyone can deal with that. The real problem is the visa takes weeks or months. I've missed conferences, missed meetings, missed a friend's wedding. Real-life events sail merrily by as you wait to hear from the US embassy.

The real problem is what affected Adi Shamir's visit. Visa's shouldn't take an indeterminate amount of time to process, and I've also done it so many times that they know everything there is about me (and probably Adi too) already.

A few years ago I applied with my sister, she got hers straight away, while I (Arab, early 20s, with a rather pathetic beard) got a letter telling me to wait and not ask them about its status. About half a year later I got another letter asking me to apply again if I still want to go.

I thanked them and said I didn't.

so your sister got in because she's not arab? or because she has an awesome beard? ;)

(joke! i live in chile; the us embassy is famous for charging so much and doing so little)

> The vast majority of the time I have been invited, or had opportunities to visit, I just do not choose to visit the USA.

This. I think it's the only viable solution today. Do not put yourself in a derogatory position, if you can afford it. Just don't go.

I have similar enough problems visiting Canada that I don't go there anymore either.

I quite like the 'apology' he received from the conference organizers:

> 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.”

This was also submitted yesterday but didn't get much interest for some reason: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6560355

Similar recent story: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6499744 'US scientists boycott Nasa conference over China ban'

It was actually submitted at least twice yesterday:


On HN, gaining interest depends on many factors. Great to see the story finally in the pole position! :)

How much you can relate to the title is very important -- even on HN. Look at the 3 submission titles on HN:

(1) Cryptographer Adi Shamir Prevented from Attending NSA History Conference

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

(3) Adi Shamir--the "S" in RSA encryption--Prevented from Attending US Crypto Talks

Number 3 (this submission) is getting the exposure the story deserves, and the reason (I think) is that everyone on HN knows what RSA is, and would have respect for its inventors.

Number 3 is by far the best title, as it explains exactly who Shamir is and why we should care. I wasn't aware whom he was prior to that title.

I think that in this case the HN renaming policy isn't doing the story a favour.

And now the current (3) title is "Adi Shamir Prevented from Attending Crypto and Cryptology Conferences".

And as always, there is no accountability for the mod who destroyed the very useful information in the submitted title.

The title wasn't editorializing or linkbaiting. It helped inform those of us who didn't recognize Dr. Shamir's name at first glance.

Shame on the mod who did this.

Shame on HN for encouraging this destruction of value.

"Early on" in HN history, posters would generally respect the "original title" mandate but upon occasion (1) would qualify it -- briefly, concisely -- with a few words in square brackets, e.g. [the "S" in "RSA"].

I don't know whether the mods still generally accept this, but I'd suggest it for such instances. And try not to intermingle bracketed qualifications within the title; appending them is generally better.

I'm not a mod, and I don't know whether this is (still) an accepted practice. So, just my suggestion.


(1) when really helpful; not all nor anything approaching a majority of the time

I find it difficult to believe that there are people who know about RSA, but not about Adi Shamir.

> I find it difficult to believe that there are people who know about RSA, but not about Adi Shamir.

I've heard of RSA (and DSA) and come across it every time I've needed a key pair (e.g for GitHub) but never thought what the letters stood for. Finding out the name of one of the people behind it is news to me.

Do you recognize the names Robert McCool and Guido van Rossum?

You might not know the names but they invented some important technologies that HN people use and respect (the original Apache server and the Python programming language, respectively).

It would be hard to relate to a story that said "Robert McCool denied US visa" or "Guido van Rossum endured US visa hassles".

Here. Didn't know about about him but have used RSA quite often.

I don't know why you were downvoted. I would have reacted just like you, but actually people replying to you raise a good point.

I think it really depends on the type of work you are doing. People in research are used to cite other authors in their paper (and we even call a paper by it's author + conference/journal name, not by its actual title) and are thus more prone to remember the name of people behind technologies. It may very well be the case that in some other types of profession you don't do this association as easily.

I personally learned about Shamir over a year after I first heard the name RSA. RSA is commonplace; every first-year computer science student knows how it works, and it's the easiest example of how to do public key cryptography. Shamir's other work in secret sharing and linear and differential cryptanalysis is slightly more obscure.

As many others have already said, I, too, am one of those guilty parties.

Add me to the list of people who know of one, but not the other.

As somebody that has held six different US immigration statuses during a span of a couple of decades, I can almost assure you there is no malice behind this and just pure bureaucratic incompetence. I once had a paper that was supposed to arrive in three months take three years. What I learned is that going to the USCIS office after something is due and checking the status will make a difference since, for example, you can spot (common) routing errors with applications.

Nobody said there's malice.

I disagree. The article itself implies possible malice. It mentions "personal vendetta" (with no supporting evidence or even speculation as to why) as a potential cause of the delay. I would consider a personal vendetta to be malicious.

Adi Shamir wrote that the president of his institute says:

"It is clear that scientists have been singled out, since I hear that other ‘simple citizen’, do get their visa in a short time."

Scientists get more scrutiny? What in the world is going on there?

I thought that was a known fact. I often hear about people who can't attend security-related conferences because of visa problems. Last year at the CRYPTO/CHES/FDTC/PROOFS week in Santa Barbara at least three researchers (from India IIRC) couldn't make it because of visa problems, while they had accepted papers at one of the conference!

In many lab outside of the US, we are told not to be to verbose about the type of conferences we are going to attend in the US. Words such as "security", "cryptography", "side-channel attacks", "fault injection attacks", etc. must be banned from the application. Instead we just say that we are going to a "computer science conference" or "information processing conference" for instance.

From the visa guidelines of the embassy where I applied for my visa [1]:

The visa applications of applicants involved in technical or scientific fields may require additional administrative processing. Therefore, applicants who believe they may be affected by this requirement should apply as early as possible.

[1] http://karachi.usconsulate.gov/technology_visas.html

Right, scientific and technical people will get extra scrutiny. Under the US's threat model -- moral or not -- it is not the janitors and artists you worry about, it's the people visiting our nuclear, biological, and high-technology facilities.

The fact that this has very bad side effects on technological progress is important, but it's not like the government gives smart people scrutiny because it hates smart people. This behavior is brutally rational if you just look at their primary mission.

Yes. 18 year-old fashion models or recording artists are fast-tracked with a cultural visa.

I guess it shows what the priorities are. Science? Dangerous! Skinny girls with weird clothing? Come on in!

Happens all the time. A colleague of mine has issues because she happened to have worked in a lab previously whose building also happened to house a lab that did nuclear research (even though she never did any herself). Scientists also move around a lot, so it doesn't help if you've worked in/visited/just been to a conference in certain countries that might arouse suspicion... It's a bit of a nightmare actually.

Scientists specifically are targeted for extra scrutiny. In my visa interview I was asked if my research is in cryptography and waved through when I said it isn't.

Really? Could you elaborate on this?

Not much to elaborate. You're told to bring a stack of documents if you have a scientific or technical background, such as CV, a list of publications, an invitation letter from your US host, a letter from your university etc. If the embassy official isn't satisfied, you are asked to send more documents to a state.gov email address. On one occasion they wanted more information about my work as a programmer before I started my PhD. When they asked me for more documents I was tempted to joke that it doesn't matter what address I use, the email will reach the required destination anyway.

It sounds like they're doing more than simply determining ones suitability for entry.

> It sounds like they're doing more than simply determining ones suitability for entry.

Did you honestly think that's all they are doing?

They can do anything they want, for as long as they want.

It occurs more often than people realise.

My friend was in the US before he had to go out and get his H1B extended. He was stuck outside the country for about 5 months for "additional scrutiny". He got his undergrad, masters and Ph.D. in the US and worked in the area of chemical engineering + spent working 6 months in middle east on water filtration projects.

Didn't that make the headlines some months ago ? I remember something about a teacher writing on behalf of his student. "We give people top education and then prevent them from working in the US and this harms us".

Here's the letter the poster above was talking about: http://www.cs.jhu.edu/~ccb/publications/letter-to-the-presid...

when I was a grad student, we regularly removed foreign students from our lab web site when they were renewing their visas due to the belief that visas were approved more quickly the less the government could learn by googling your name. That is, if they can quickly learn anything about your research, those are all potential red flags. If a quick google search turns up nothing, you'll just be rubber stamped through.

One of the grad students I know was told he was not allowed to renew his student visa unless he stopped working on computer security. He had to switch advisers and the school had to swear that he would not be allowed to continue his previous work.

Ironically one of the easiest visas to get is if you are an artist.

It's fairly common, unfortunately.

It's all those dangerous liberal intelligesia.

I know of another Israeli security researcher that had big trojble getting an american visa for travel, he had to cancel his trip because getting the visa took 5 months IIRC.

AFAIK, USA has been a second choice for crypto-related conferences for many years. If you ever attended one such conference, you will notice there will always some speakers/presenters couldn't attend due to visa issues. I guess many US people aren't even aware of this, but visa problem has been a huge pain for non US citizens. You can ask about this if you have any friends who are international students or H1B workers.

It's not that they didn't give him a J1 visa, it's just that they took way too long to process it. It sucks, but I wouldn't attribute to malice what I could attribute to inefficiency :)

It should not take four months and pulling a lot of strings to get a visa, in particular if you have been to the US for many times, have invitations from renowned institutions etc.

I am not a scientist and I can usually enter the US on the visa waiver program but I always wonder if the latest visit was also the last, you never know. And while you get used to the usual 1- or 2-hour wait at immigration, you never know if you get selected for a secondary check or worse. As much as I like the US and being in the US, entering the US is always very unpleasant.

Nothing about the US Visa process works the way it should work.

I used to think the same way (malice vs incompetence), but lately there has been to much malice going on.. I am sad to admit that I am starting to have my doubts about it.

> Indeed, public-key cryptography might not even be with us today if Adi had not been involved with Ron Rivest and Leonard Adleman so long ago.

There you go, those pesky scientists making the surveillance industry's job that little bit harder.

That is pretty clearly what it is about....

What is obvious is that "Adi Shamir" is a name of someone living in a country dominated by Islam, and further that person is known to work in cryptography, so he is obviously a terrorist trying to send secret orders to other terrorists. In any case, he's a PITA for the NSA and other good guys like that. What they should have done, is to give him a visa, and redirect his flight direct to Guantanamo for further interrogation.</sarcasm level=big>

A tad more seriously: it's because of all those scientists of all the ages, that they have this situation where mere peasants can travel all around the globe, and make bombs or pilot planes into buildings. In the good old time, if a peasant tried to escape, he was eaten by the wolfs in the hoods, or killed by the highwaymen, so they stayed put, and the most they could try to do was to bump the armor of the lord with their wooden forks.

So it seems only natural to try to restrict them like that (perhaps it's a little too late).

Wat. He's from Israel.


As if border control cares.

Hence the (incorrect) sarcasm tag.

Two things, first off attributes are rarely placed on closing tags, and secondly you forgot to enclose the value in quotes as in level="big"

Quoting attributes is optional in HTML (though recommended).

Only in old depreciated versions or with the quirks mode enabled.

The comment you replied to has no DOCTYPE.

Therefore it is not XHTML.

It's not even HTML. It's quite obviously just an HN comment and not subject to the syntax rules of of XHTML or HTML.

So, your complaints about the tag formatting are unfounded.

The comment I replied to wasn't any valid format at all. What makes you think my reply wasn't in jest? Because it obviously was. People just want to nitpick my obviously humorous reply (which is actually fine up to a point as my humour was nitpicking so getting nitpicky about the nitpicking is valid too).

You are taking this far far too seriously.

I'm sorry my humor detector wasn't working as well as it should have yesterday. Writing doesn't have the nuances of personal conversation, and it often happens that something that was intended as humor doesn't come across that way.

I've been in your shoes here a few times, when I've posted something that I thought was obviously humorous and people took it seriously instead. It's usually happened when I avoided putting in a :-) because I felt like that would ruin the joke - and instead leaving out the :-) ended up ruining the joke.

So, peace, bro, OK? :-)

You're a better person than I, Stratoscope.

Oh I get it. You think XHMTL is the new hotness and HTML5 is the "old depreciated version". I guess I would have suspected that if I was browsing with cutting-edge IE6 instead of this crappy old Chrome 29.

Something can be both XHTML and HTML5. They're compatible. But, yes, all websites written today should be compatible with both. Writing to the quirks in the HTML format just make people look incompetent (particularly as no quotes means certain characters cannot be used in the value, which is a nice bug waiting to happen).

So by all means keep writing your low quality quirky HTML and when it breaks in the future don't come crying to me. I prefer keeping my HTML both well formed and XML valid. The fact that writing strict HTMLs makes it much easier to automatically detect errors and typographic issues is just a huge bonus.

I think if the US must continue to have such draconian and onerous entry requirements they should offer a fast track or simplified program for persons of note to attend a specific event in their field.

To not do so simply hinders the progress of human knowledge, or at least, it hinders the United States.

> fast track or simplified program for persons of note

There actually is a visa for Outstanding persons called O-1A: individuals with an extraordinary ability in the sciences, education, business, or athletics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O_visa).

I don't know if it's any faster to get it.

It takes even longer; the documentation required is very strict, and due to the wide range of applicants, hard+subjective to judge.

Huh...so the ACM Turing Award does not qualify? And a Nobel prize wouldn't either, I suppose? So what does?

This is precisely the problem. "Policy on the run" becomes ill-designed red tape.

All the fast track you need is to confer in a less-crazy space. In general, this works pretty well. You can publish in Springer journals, attend IEEE conferences and whatnot without ever entering USA.

However, it would be pretty funny to see NSA organize its conference in Europe to evade visa problems :D

Unfortunately this would violate some "fairness" or "political correctness" rule. It's like patting down some grandma/3-year-old girl at the airport, just to show we're not "prejudiced".

Why did he apply for a J-1 visa? I've been on a J-1 a couple of times for research stints in the US, but my understanding is that for conferences, you can also make use of the B-1 visa [1], as stated on the State department's website. The B-1 is generally processed much more quickly, with the J-1 requiring a lot more documentation.

[1] http://www.travel.state.gov/visa/temp/types/types_2665.html#...

Why not attend by telepresence? Let him present by video and hook him up with a Double or similar internet-controllable robot to talk to people around the conference. Or go full-on Bluth and pair up with an American proxy wearing a headset.

This sucks, sure, but there's always another way.

I've been thinking you could hook up a cam/mic to one of those Roomba vacuum 'bots and then you could cruise around the conference and network with your colleagues just as though you were there. I understand those things have wifi already, so....

The coolest part would be bumping into other Roombas that represent colleagues from elsewhere (you'd need a way to distinguish from an ordinary, autonomous Roomba). There could even be a Roomba room just for them!

And on the plus side, to escape any awkward conversations you can simply start vacuuming!

Someone did this a while back -- it made HN, but I don't remember who was behind it. It had a camera and an LCD display and could travel between offices and conference rooms in an office building several states away, attending meetings and generally hanging out with coworkers.

I think you mean this:


If this would become common (or any "other way"), it could very well be made illegal shortly after and requires some sort of visa. The issue is not technical, it's political.

Can anyone explain why it involved a J1 visa? I thought a B-1 sufficed for attendance (and even non-compensated presentations)

If you're already on a J1 you can only apply to have it renewed, and if you don't you get a two-year visa ban.

For those of you in the Cambridge area, he will instead be giving a talk at MIT tomorrow.



Why not organize important events such as this one elsewhere, some place more easily accessible for everyone?

I hope this will spur research and development in the area of telepresence.

Or just spur research outside of the USA, this is not the center of the world.

There needs to be legislation that allows foreign scientist's visas to be rushed to the front of the line when they have a science convention. I mean just imagine if doctor A had information to present that would help doctor B find a cure for HIV or something just important.

Are we really making it that difficult for the smartest people in the world to convene and discuss all the new smart stuff they know with the other smartest people in the world?

Not only scientists and doctors, but programmers too. Just imagine if somebody invented a new rails plugin that could be used to help build the next wikileaks or something but they weren't able to demonstrate it at a meetup.

Does this have anything to do with the recent shutdown?

No, he received his visa on the day before the shutdown began.

It's unlikely, since the link mentions he applied for his visa in early June.

I'm surprised nobody is offended by the fact that an Israeli needs a visa for the US in the first place.

I'm Israeli, not sure why this should be offensive :) AFAIK most foreigners need a visa, except for EU and few other nations.

And even within the EU Polish citizens still need visas, it's a massive pain. It's basically because after the fall of communism a lot of Polish people went to US with travel visas and stayed, so when the visa requirement was dropped for all EU countries, Poland was explicitly excluded from that arrangement. So now if I wanted to go to US I would need to apply at an embassy first.

Many EU countries are excluded from the VWP, not just Poland.

Actually, there are 37 countries on the VWP. Quite a few outside the EU.


A bill was recently introduced to add Israel to this program, Visa Waiver for Israel Act. The difficulty seems to be that the language of the law is not the same for Israel as for other countries. There may be potential for different treatment of US citizens: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/05/16/critics-fea...

I have been to the USA in the past. I would like to see more than I have seen and I would also like to participate in the wonderful US economy.

However upon the last visit I really took offence with the security theatre (that was in 2008 mind you and I am from a visa waiver country). Another factor is that USA chooses to not grant me a visa under which I start a business in the US under reasonable terms i.e. without constant fear of getting caught and deported and being put on lists.

It became a matter of pride. Now I will continue to avoid USA on principle.

I flew to New Zealand on Air NZ back in 2005. Unfortunately there's a stop off in LA to refuel and change crew. Everyone is taken off the plane and corralled into a holding area with not enough seats and horribly stained walls. There is no humour from the immigration officials who escort you through a myriad of corridors to this zone.

Then you're marched out in batches and electronically finger printed/eyeball scanned by more humourless uniformed officials before being deposited back in the holding area to await your onward journey. It was a demeaning experience and I wasn't even visiting the US. Technically I haven't entered the US, how do they get away with that?

This contrasted heavily to my previous arrival on US soil (Boston in 2002) which was pretty straight forward - visa waiver (I'm a UK citizen) thing during final approach on plane and traditional show your passport procedure at immigration and off you go.

Upon arrival in Auckland the only grilling we got was from a bunch of cheerful bio-security folks, with a cute sniffer dog, who wanted to make sure we didn't have any fresh food in our bags and that our footwear wasn't caked in dirt/earth (which could potentially harbour unwanted seeds or spores).

After my 2005 experience I decided that won't be visiting the US again, I'll stick to travelling in the EU.

I love New Zealand's quarantine people. Every time I visit they clean my shoes for me!

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