The Man Who Made the UK Say “I’m Sorry For What We Did To Turing.”
John Graham-Cumming used cunning and data to get the apology
Arriving in theaters this fall is a major new film about Alan Turing, the man who broke the German codes, an achievement critical in winning World War II. Turing is also one of the greatest computer scientists ever — the father of machine theory and artificial intelligence.
John Graham-Cumming knows the story well. As a computer scientist, a security specialist and somewhat of a math nerd, he shares some intellectual DNA with Turing. But his name is intertwined with Turing’s more indelibly by a campaign he led in the summer of 2009.
After 55 years of shameful silence, this gentle geek made Britain apologize for Turing’s death.
Like Turing, Graham-Cumming was a child prodigy, inexplicably talented in math. He would do jigsaw puzzles face down because it was easier for him to put them together solely by the shapes of the pieces. He was fascinated by the same theories of computation that had occupied Turing, particularly in areas of computational provability. (This interest began at age 6, when on a visit to Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge—Turing’s alma mater—he asked one of the scientists how a computer worked. The scientist described to him what is known as a Turing Machine, a proof of universal computation named after the man who created it.) As a specialist in computer security, Graham-Cumming had visited Bletchley Park, the home of Turing’s great wartime cryptanalytical feats. Naturally, Graham-Cumming was appalled at the facts of Turing’s demise. Turing was a gay person, and in 1952 the government had convicted him for violating the existing laws against expressing homosexuality. It stripped him of his security clearance and even demanded his castration. The prosecution led Turing to kill himself in 1954. He was 41 years old.
“If he had not died, I probably would have had him as one of my Oxford teachers,” says Graham-Cumming, now 47, and a programmer for the Internet security company CloudFlare. (He is also author of The Geek Atlas, a travel book for engineering nuts.)
Graham-Cumming, like many who learned in horror of England’s odious treatment of one of its greatest citizens, never thought to do anything about those early 1950s atrocities—until June 23, 2009. On that day, he randomly came across a tweet by British author and actor Stephen Fry about Turing’s 97th birthday:
All of Graham-Cumming’s feelings about the horrible loss of one of computing’s greatest minds suddenly rushed to the surface. “It made my blood boil,” he recalls now. Instead of ranting to his wife — she was away on a trip — he decided to write something on his blog.
The blog’s description was, “The troubled thoughts of a caustic coder. Mostly code but sometimes rants, randomness and politics.” Recent posts included a call for iPhone 3GS serial numbers and an entry entitled “Does Benford’s Law apply to election results?” But his new post, which poured out of him less than an hour after he saw the Fry tweet, clearly fell under the rubric of the other three categories. It was entitled, “Alan Turing deserves an apology from the British government.”
“This man, younger than me, killed himself because at the time homosexuality was illegal,” he wrote, “and having been prosecuted he was chemically castrated in an attempt to ‘cure’ him.” Graham-Cumming noted that it was not until 1994 that the government parceled out any honor to the man who had arguably done more than any other in the 20th century to preserve the nation — and then by naming a stretch of the A6010 road in Manchester, his hometown, “Alan Turing Way.”
“A frikkin’ Ring Road!” he wrote.
The next day, still steaming, Graham-Cumming followed up with a draft of an apology that the government might want to issue. The crux of it was that Turing provided us an enlightened view of humanity, with the eponymous test he devised to mark the moment when computers became intelligent. The Turing Test was in a sense an exercise in anti-prejudice. It did not distinguish color, sex or sexuality. To those who ask what good an apology to a dead man would be, Graham-Cumming suggested the test itself could be a guide.
An apology is really an atonement for the past, wrapped around a promise for the future. My promise. . . is that we won’t let prejudice prevent us from applying our own Turing Test to the people we deal with.
Graham-Cumming now says that he felt an apology would allow us to speak about Turing without the unjustifiable cloud of shame that hung over the hero. “If we could just get it out, we would be able to celebrate him in accounts like the movie coming out now,” he says, ,”without the mumbling at the end that comes with the murky circumstances of his death.”
After his first blog post, Graham-Cumming learned of a program that allowed citizens to urge the Prime Minister to take various actions via a petition to the 10 Downing Street website. Graham-Cumming immediately submitted this plea: “We the undersigned petition the prime minister to apologize for the prosecution of Alan Turing that led to his untimely death…an apology would recognize the tragic consequences that ended the man’s life and career.”
On August 4, 2009, the government gave approval for Graham-Cumming’s petition to appear on the 10 Downing website, in a corner designated for such (mostly doomed) causes. On his blog he expressed hope that it might draw the 500 valid signatures required for a response. Privately, he doubted that he’d make that number. But the game was on.
Graham-Cumming threw himself into the campaign with the vigor of an athlete (which he wasn’t) and the practicality of an engineer (which he was).
Every day, while commuting to work on the upper level of one of London’s double-decker buses, he checked the progress of his petition. Signatures came slowly. He promoted it on social media and Hacker News. He pestered the press to take notice. His press efforts bore fruit: on August 16, the Manchester Evening News wrote about the petition, followed by the gay press. He had garnered the 500 names, but he knew he’d need a much stronger showing to impress the Prime Minister. Leveraging the initial stories, he got his first national notice on August 18, in the Independent. As he was checking signatures on the bus, he discovered Richard Dawkins among the new names. He emailed the famous biologist and confirmed that Dawkins had indeed signed it. Using that celebrity endorsement and the existing national coverage, he sought more. Meanwhile, the names kept accumulating, so fast that it was a chore to pore over them to see if other notables had joined.
Graham-Cumming, remember, is a computer scientist, specializing in parts of the Internet that require massive scale. So he knew how to deal with torrents of information. In this case, he wrote code to analyze the new signatures. His program took each name and tested it against Wikipedia to see if the signer might be prominent (not everybody gets a Wiki entry) and a UK resident. If so, the program automatically sent Graham-Cumming an email. From there he would exploit the connection personally.
Signatures kept rising steadily — creeping to 5000— until just before the end-of-summer holiday, when Graham-Cumming managed to convince a BBC reporter to write about the campaign. She told him she’d try to send her editors something before she left for the weekend. On August 31, her article appeared. When Graham-Cumming checked his signatures, he had a pleasant shock: the total had leapt to 20,000. Soon after he appeared on BBC television.
Number of Signatures based on Media Coverage of Campaign
In early September, Graham-Cumming heard from one of Turing’s surviving relatives, a descendant of the scientist’s older brother. (“There are no direct descendants for obvious reasons!” wrote a Turing grand-nephew.) This development was not only further reason to grant an apology — so that family members could accept such an apology — but a relief to Graham-Cumming. “If family members had objected, I would have packed it in,” he says. As it was, he learned that Turing’s nieces not only remembered their beloved uncle, but still had his teddy bear. Driven to tears, Graham-Cumming vowed to keep working until the government relented.
In early September, the petition had drawn over 30,000 signatures (including that of Stephen Fry, whose remark had triggered the effort.)
Despite the momentum, the government had still not commented. Could the silence be interpreted as stonewalling? Or something different?
On September 10, Graham-Cumming found the answer to that question. It happened that he was sick with the flu. Very sick. He stayed in bed most of the day. Late in the afternoon, he dragged himself to his computer to check his email. Sitting there, in rumpled gym garb, he found the following message from one Kirsty McNeill, a person he did not know:
John — I wonder if you could call me as a matter of urgency, regarding your petition. Very many thanks!
The note was signed “Kirsty.” The email signature, as well as the email domain, indicated an association with 10 Downing Street.
Graham-Cumming, even in his flu-addled state, knew that this might just be some prank. It wasn’t hard to spoof an address, even from the Prime Minister’s office. He Googled the telephone number in the signature. It was the switchboard to 10 Downing Street. He dialed, asked for Ms. McNeill, and was quickly connected.
“We are doing the apology tonight,” she told him. Was it all right if she read him the text? Somewhat stunned, he listened and approved. Before hanging up, Ms. McNeill asked him for his mobile number.
Ten minutes later, his iPhone rang. “Hello, John, this is Gordon Brown,” came a familiar voice. “I think you know why I’m calling you.” Over the next few minutes the two chatted. Prime Minister Brown was not a politician of the oozing Tony Blair/Bill Clinton “feel your pain” school. Graham-Cumming admits to some of the same social awkwardness. So the two of them stumbled through a conversation in which Brown confessed that until the petition he had not realized the government’s role in persecuting and prosecuting one of its greatest war heroes. Within a half an hour, 10 Downing released the apology.
It was not the soaring confession that Graham-Cumming had written, but it satisfied him. It did not duck the government’s shameful culpability. “The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying…that he was treated so inhumanely,” it reads. For Graham-Cumming, five key words, directed to a hero deprived of life way too early, said it all: “You deserved so much better.”
Thanks to one caustic computer scientist, the United Kingdom finally admitted as much. It was 78 days since Graham-Cumming’s first blog item, 37 days since the petition was posted. And fifty-five years since Alan Turing, convicted of the crime of his sexuality and condemned to chemical castration, ingested a cyanide-laced apple. “I got really mad about this one night in the summer of 2009,” says Graham-Cumming. “And did something about that.”