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August 17, 2005
Chinese Cryptographers Denied U.S. Visas
Chinese cryptographer Xiaoyun Wang, the woman who broke SHA-1 last year, was unable to attend the Crypto conference to present her paper on Monday. The U.S. government didn't give her a visa in time:
On Monday, she was scheduled to explain her discovery in a keynote address to an international group of researchers meeting in California.
But a stand-in had to take her place, because she was not able to enter the country. Indeed, only one of nine Chinese researchers who sought to enter the country for the conference received a visa in time to attend.
Sadly, this is now common:
Although none of the scientists were officially denied visas by the United States Consulate, officials at the State Department and National Academy of Sciences said this week that the situation was not uncommon.
Lengthy delays in issuing visas are now routine, they said, particularly for those involved in sensitive scientific and technical fields.
These delays can make it impossible for some foreign researchers to attend U.S. conferences. There are researchers who need to have their paper accepted before they can apply for a visa. But the paper review and selection process, done by the program committee in the months before the conference, doesn't finish early enough. Conferences can move the submission and selection deadlines earlier, but that just makes the conference less current.
In Wang's case, she applied for her visa in early July. So did her student. Dingyi Pei, another Chinese researcher who is organizing Asiacrypt this year, applied for his in early June. (I don't know about the others.) Wang has not received her visa, and Pei got his just yesterday.
This kind of thing hurts cryptography, and hurts national security. The visa restrictions were designed to protect American advanced technologies from foreigners, but in this case they're having the opposite effect. We are all more secure because there is a vibrant cryptography research community in the U.S. and the world. By prohibiting Chinese cryptographers from attending U.S. conferences, we're only hurting ourselves.
NIST is sponsoring a workshop on hash functions (sadly, it's being referred to as a "hash bash") in October. I hope Wang gets a visa for that.
Posted on August 17, 2005 at 11:53 AM
• 46 Comments
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Reminds me of the world HIV/AIDS conference a few years back when it was being held in the USA ... and anyone who was HIV+ was refused a visa!
The solution is simple, make the conference outside USA, it's not a freedom place anymore.
As various people pointed out since the inception of the DMCA, perhaps the US is not a suitable venue for security or crypto related conferences any more.
If it is not explainable mearly by incompetence then is unfortunatly a shortsighted policy on behalf of the US government. It will in the future effectivly force these matters into countries where the attitudes are more liberal.
Eventually it will result in US Universitys stop employing people at the top of their field, so the standard in the US will drop.
Maybe such conferences should be held in Switzerland or Australia in future, they at present appeare (at least) to hold a more relaxed view point.
"The solution is simple, make the conference outside USA, it's not a freedom place anymore."
I certainly think this idea is worth considering, but others consider it too drastic at this point. The business meeting is this afternoon; we'll see what happens.
Actually, many conferences (e.g. IETF) are moving to foreign locations more often for this very reason.
Dmitry Sklyarov's experience made moving crypto (and hackers') conferences outside USA a necessary measure quite some time ago.
At the SIGGRAPH conference a couple of weeks ago there was at least one poster not presented because of "visa problems".
I know of at least one international conference that is considering siting itself in Canada to avoid the visa restrictions. Of course, this would probably present problems for non-citizen scientists in the US going to Canada and then finding they have difficulties re-entering the country.
This is only going to get worse.
Concerning these visa applications, there seems to be an assumption, on this blog, that the delay on the part of the USA Government is both purposeful and pursuing a hidden agenda relating to cryptography (research) undertaken outside the USA and, perhaps particularly, in China or other less-allied nations.
For myself, I would be happier if there were objective evidence in support of this assumption. Accordingly, I would like to suggest 2 tests; this might lead others to suggest additional tests along similar lines.
The first test is to check the order of issue/refusal of visas to persons (in need of visas) attending the conference in question. If it is clear that later applicants from other countries have been issued visas more quickly, that is some evidence of a problem.
The second test is similar. It relates to issue of visas to Chinese nationals, or those applying through the USA embassy in China. Again, if the 2 applications in question have not been handled substantially in order, this might be evidence supporting that there is a problem relating to attendance at a conference on cryptography.
If both tests fail, and in the absence of any convincing official explanatory statement from the USA Government, then I would (just about I think) be convinced that the USA Government has behaved in an undesirable, unreasonable and underhand way.
Then the USA Government would be under at least some sort of moral obligation to publish a suitably clear statement of their policy (whether or not we like that policy), or reject such visa applications within one or two days of receipt (preferably on clearly stated grounds).
In college I dated a girl from China. Non-citizen, here on a visa. When she wanted to go back home to visit her family, her visa cost 3-4x as much as most do. Why? Because her passport was from a communist country.
At the end of the paperwork in Toronto, we discovered that anyone from a list of countries (rather blatant in that it contained all communist countries in the world, and a few small, volatile places), had to pay an extra fee. The visa was done, no extra background checks were required (there was no time for it), just an extra (large) fee.
I wholeheartedly agree that one should move conferences outside of the United States. I do not think this is overly drastic either. After all, why are they in the states in the first place?
I also see a different angle to this dicussion, though: in my opinion, this is actually a chance for Europe to catch up with the US when it comes to scientific research. The US has always been the technological leader of the world because they were able to attract all the smartest people from all over the world. Now they are not letting them into their country anymore. (After all, the visa issue is just as big a problem when it comes to studying in the US.)
Europe should take this chance and actively recruit those smart people who are turned down in the US. Unfortunately, it does not seem like this is what we are currently doing... Then again, this angle is probably not what Americans want to hear right now. ;)
My organization makes a good number of trips to Russian Federation and other assorted CIS nations. According to the description above, the visa applications were submitted in "early July". Honestly, international travel is such that I'm not really surprised at such a delay.
I second Nigel's complaint that there seems to be an assumption that this is unreasonable to begin with. Unreasonable? It sucks, sure, but unreasonable? Could we not also be complaining about the fact that she didn't find out she was going to be *speaking* at the conference until the last 5 weeks?
Maybe the cryptography community is more "bleeding edge" than the rest of the security industry, but I seem to recall the last couple conferences for which I've considered submitting papers having a much more gracious notification period. I don't see anyone complaining about them not being "as current."
After all, these folks aren't coming from the US's favorite nation. (ok, I'm not up on the current diplomatic status between the US and China, but it's my assumption that as a relatively communist state with extremely... uh... 'flexible' IP laws, China warrants a substantial vetting process -- even (especially?) for "scientists").
As pointed out in a note on the cryptography mailing list, the US seems to live in a fantasy world where other countries are incapable of progress because of some innate quality. Unfortunately for America, reality is proving this wrong and the fantasy Americans have been force-fed all their lives is being shown to be crap. The sooner the US (and especially, its government) realise this, the better for all involved.
The professor probably just didn't have enough money in her bank account. It's quite hard to get a US visa unless you can show you have substantial assets, a high income, and/or a running business.
Sorry, but you can't have it both ways. You can't have humans doing sanity checks on visa applicants (to eliminate dumb software decisions like CAPPS) and have super-fast turnaround times.
Five weeks is not very much time in the world of getting visas, especially given the risk of the individual staying in the US. (Nothing wrong with having people want to stay in the US -- but there is a different visa for that with different criteria. e.g., you have to have means to support yourself or have a financial sponsor before coming.) I doubt other countries will necessarily be much faster because of the human component.
If the conference wants people from all over the world present, the conference needs to get their act together sooner and determine who is speaking several months in advance. This is necessary not only for visas, but for a speaker to effectively plan his life around. (If Pei planned a vacation 3-4 months ago and then received an invitation to speak for the same week, he may not have been able to make the speaking engagement anyway.)
The visa system has its own set of problems. The issue raised here is not one of them.
Dont know about conferences, but having gone through the INS process multiple times over the past 8 years, I can tell you now that its a horror.
I first applied for an H1B in 1996, which was supposed to take a few months, after 6 months, I found out that I had missed that round, so my company got me a J1, then later an H1B, then I got married and went through that process.
Applied for the green card in August 2001, and simultaneously applied for "advance parole", which is permission to leave the country. Youre generally not allowed to leave the country while your visa is being processed (this takes a minimun of 2 years, but can take much longer). The "advance parole" itself has an expiry date, which is different from the date that the document its printed on expires. Made a mistake on the dates, ended up being detained for 8 hours because of this, and eventually had to front up to a tribunal which explained to me that I had commited a crime "akin to murder".
After 2 years, I had only recived a receipt indicating that the INS had cashed my cheques, but no reference number. I wanted to find out what was happening with our application, but you cant find out anything over the phone without a reference number. The INS allows only 100 or so people into its building a day without an appointment (which you cant get without a reference number), so you have to queue up around 10pm the night before. I spent from 10pm through till 5pm the next day before I found out what my reference number was.
Eventually we had our interview. The first thing our interviewer asks is "who is abdul as-hassan". My wife and I look at each other and say, weve never heard that name. The interviewier persists, asking whay his file is in our file; we are freaking out. Eventually the interviewer decides its a mistake and throw Abdul's file in the bin.
In the room next door to us, an asian couple are being interviewed. Their interviewer is continuously screaming at them "shut up, you know youre not to speak unless youre spoken too". Our interviewer looks at us and sais, just be thankfull you didnt get her. He tells us that since 9/11 every day is a new attrocity at the INS.
When I get back to my country, Im going to agitate for reciprocity laws, in which Americans (and INS agents, in particular) will get reciprocal treatment as far as visas go. This means long delays, Kafka-esque rules, endless waiting and queues, and a hostile attitude.
To tell you the truth, I think I got it relatively easy, because I am white and speak english fluently. I cant imagine how difficult and horrible it must be for others.
The question I have is this: What kind of people does the US think its going to get with a process like that? My guess is, only the most desperate and compliant.
One more success for terrorists. They've accomplished the task of making it harder for any competent people from outside the US getting in the country.
Dingyi Pei is not Wang's student.
This almost certainly has nothing to do with cryptography.
My wife is Chinese and we have a good deal of experience in dealing with visas.
The amount of time required to get a visa to come to the US depends heavily on the type of visa and where you're getting it. In a place like France where things are relatively calm and most people don't actually need a visa to go to the US, the waiting time can be as little as three or four weeks. In a place like China, where there's over a billion people and all of them need a visa if they want to go to the US, the waiting time can be enormously longer.
This certainly raises a problem exactly as mentioned, that conference attendees don't even know if their papers are accepted far enough in advance. However, the long wait times aren't just for cryptographers, they're for everyone, and they're nothing anywhere close to new.
Perhaps people attending scientific conferences and the like could be given priority to help with this problem. But the implication in this post, that scientists in general and cryptographers in particular are being explicitly excluded, is not true from the evidence I have.
Having been born a purebred red-neck in the USA, I really have no idea just how bad it is just to basically walk up to us and say you're just poking around. I can understand being a little more nervous about people coming from countries that really hate us (the ones who simply despise us are ok), but I don't really see why just because someone is from China (or those other Communist* countries) should get the big shaft. I definitely see the reasoning behind using another country as the meeting place of the free. Too bad we can't do it here.
* I don't know if Communist should be capitalized. Silly American I am.
"Dingyi Pei is not Wang's student."
He's most certainly not.
Ukraine, here locally, can grant visas in a maximum of seven days, even Russia takes no more than three weeks. These are some of the worst of the big countries. It's very simple, the USA is no longer a place where serious business or serious conferences should be taking place. A security conference in the USA is stupid, you would have thought that people arranging that kind of thing could see that the risk of having participants arrested isn't worth it.
I've needed a US visa three times. The first two times I got it by standing in a long line in front of the US embassy in Stockholm, getting searched, interrogated, insulted, interrogated, waiting for hours in the only american building without air conditioning and then paying a pile of money. The visa came after a few days (it was before 2001), had a long list of restrictions and was only valid for a few days.
The third time I needed a visa, my company was paying. I asked the travel agent if they could help in the process in any way, they could. All I had to do was to give my passport to the delivery guy they sent and three hours later I had it back with a fresh visa, valid for ten years (valid longer than my passport), no restrictions and it costed me less than before.
I'm still not sure what it means.
With most of the US attendees being scattered all over the US, meaning they have to fly to the conference anyway, and with foreign nationals being shunned by the US government, why not just hold it in Canada?
If you live in, say, New York does it make much difference whether the conference is in California or British Columbia? Whereas if you're from China it makes a big difference.
This is only a "drastic" solution if you're an American who doesn't have a passport and thinks a trip across the northern border is some kind of great adventure.
That sounds like a truly terrible experience. Personally I would be sorely tempted to sue the entire organisation for racist descrimination!
What do these idiots think they are achieving by making life hell for any visible ethnic minorities who wish to enter the US? Does it help US national security? No. Does it help the likes of Hizb ut-Tahrir and al-Muhajiroun to further drive a wedge between Muslims & other members of the community? Yes.
Personally I believe that certain aspects of what are called "human rights" ought to be subordinated to increase counter-terrorist measures. However, the story you describe fills me with horror. The actions you describe on behalf of the immigration service are xenophobic, rampantly racist and are abhortent on so many levels.
Although I'm white & British I won't bother to visit the US anytime soon which is a pitty as in general I love the country and the people.
Stupid system.... Stupid and dangerous.
"does it make much difference whether the conference is in California or British Columbia?"
Depends on the time of year and if you actually want to see a bit of the place you are visiting.
I have had to travel on business and to conferences many many times, and always try to arive in a country at the begining of a weekend, and leave at the end of the following weekend.
First off in Europe and other countries the saving in airfare is often greater than the cost of a 2* Hotel or pension for the period. Also for some strange reason in some places this helps with getting a visa...
Secondly, I get aclimatised to the area the time zone and most importantly the people (being able to say a few words in somebodies native language gets you a whole lot more respect). It also means I arive at the customer bright eyed bushy tailed and can give them a full day (+).
Thirdly, it gives me flexability with the people I visit, if meetings need to be moved or extended or aditional information needs to be obtained then I can do it. I learnt this less from dealing with a Korean company, they would always save (/hide) import contract stuff untill five minutes before the taxi to the airport was due as they figured they could get an advantage. You should have seen the look of dimay, when they tried it again and I said "No problem i'll stay till it's sorted". My boss was also happy as we got a more favourable deal that time, also on the following occasions the meetings ran to plan without suprises at the end.
Fourth, I like to see new places and people, I look at it this way I arive Friday evening, I get the weekend, I do two or three days for the company, I get the rest of the week for me and the best part of the following weekend. It costs me two or three days from my holiday alowance, and I get five or six days in a new or interesting place. Also it alows me to properly socialise with some of the customers which can build very useful bonds, and I get to see stuff tourists don't. It also enables me to get to know them better so I do not need to make as many business trips to them in the future...
The companies I have worked for usually do not mind picking up the Hotel tab as the total cost of the trip is less (I pick up my other expenses). And more importantly they and the people I am visiting get a wide awake person with flexability, not suprisingly this counts very highly with both. The deal and relationships are usually better as well which makes future business more certain.
I apriciate that not everybody can do this, but I find that the "Macho Red Eye" stuff is actually a compleat waste of everybodies time both short term and long term.
It means the travel agent dealt in bribes.
"It means the travel agent dealt in bribes"
Perhaps not, in the UK a large number of travel agencies know how to fast track visas / pasports etc and I doubt that all are giving back handers, or that there are sufficient government personel taking them.
It might just be human natutre at work. If you are a bod working in a government office checking mountins of applications every day, and you get several from the same agency on a very regular basis and they never give you any problems (ie the agency takes the time to check the application is correct etc) you will be tempted to do them first and get them off your desk as this will give the greatest return for effort. You might not even check them to carefully, such is the nature of people with heavy work loads.
I know personnaly of one of the UK business travel agent that used to follow this philosophy (a relative of mine worked there) and they had remarkably good success at getting visas and pasports sorted out quickly. Their secret was to check each and every application themselves, that all the relavent boxes where ticked, names addresses etc where spelt correctly and legably, the correct paperwork was there etc and if not get the applicant to do it again.
If they where uncertain about anything, they would ask the gov bod about it as they usually where on friendly terms, and take the application back if it was wrong.
Sometimes all you do need to suceed is a friedly face, plesant manner and hard work.
I don't think the problem is whether the US government did delay her visa on purpose or not, it is just that the delay causes "harm" to the organizers of the conference, and to everyone interested in cryptography.
Many countries have "express procedures" for visa, that can be used in cases where you can prove that you have a good reason why you want it before a certain date (the conference organisation would have to apply for it though, not the conference speaker).
In a situation where the speaker's physical presence is in question, why don't the conference organizers provision a video conference link as a plan "b"?
"I can understand being a little more nervous about people coming from countries that really hate us (the ones who simply despise us are ok), but I don't really see why just because someone is from China (or those other Communist* countries) should get the big shaft."
It's not just people from people from China. Poles run into the same set of problems, despite Poland being in the European Union and a member of the "Coalition of the Willing."
Getting a big shaft is when you can't get into a country with a passport issued by that country. Stupid Brits.
Two comments, unrelated.
First, the crypto call for papers reports a notification of 6 May. So it is apparently 2 months after the notification that Xiaoyun Wang applied for a visa. There was no reason given for the delay in applying but a notification for a conference with proceedings typically would be about 3.5 months in advance. So, the conference deadlines are not the problem.
Second, I don't know about passport offices and bribes. But I do know that US (state) agencies for driver's licences and car registration have preferential lines for dealers. Also these agencies are notoriously slow on the non-preferential lines.
Have you seen this articlefromZDnet "Feds fund VoIP tapping research" by Declan McCullagh, which is ...."From a privacy advocate's point of view, this is an attack on privacy," Xinyuan Wang, an assistant professor of software engineering and principal investigator, said Tuesday. "From a police point of view, this is a way to trace things."
To translate his research into a tool that could be used by police in a successor version of the FBI's Carnivore system, Wang received a grant of $307,436 from the National Science Foundation this month. The grant calls for the development of a prototype VoIP-tracing application to provide a "critical but currently missing capability in the fight on crime and terrorism." Don't this think this is the reason why?
My father-in-law is a prominent Israeli epidemiologist. He was planning to go a few months ago to this big conference in the US, and his visa application, filed well in advance, was denied since, well, he's a possible bioterrorist. He was allowed to appeal the decision, with the result of the appeal coming in something about 3 weeks after the conference ended. Yay.
We were so shocked by the sheer stupidity of this US decision that it took us a while to be offended. The next conference will probably be held somewhere in Europe instead.
Granted, governmental bureaucracies can be pretty inept and inefficient. We can all agree on that. And looking at the other side of the coin, some poor pencil pucher in a back office in Tianjin cannot be expected to know who is a respectable cryptographer. That is reasonable too.
But if this noticeboard is a conversation among competent techies, shouldn't we be discussing viable ways to work around the problems, regardless of whether they deserve to be called stupid? Some people for example are saying conferences shouldn't be held in the US any more. Great point. Even when the bulk of researchers on a given topic are in the US, it would be almost as cheap for them all to meet in Canada. But when NIST is going to put on a conference, they would likely lose funding if they tried to put it in Canada.
The solution I expect to hear from non-technophobes is this: Teleconference! I mean seriously, why aren't people attending these conferences by internet link when their visas are denied? Do the conference organizers lack the technical skills to set it up? Do they not consider it worth the effort to have these esteemed invitees "present" at least in spirit despite the unfortunate barriers?
Having more tele-attenders would benefit a lot of such technical meetings, not only by allowing researchers to circumvent government dawdling: Those who can't afford the time to travel half way across the globe could then still add to and gain from the give & take with their peers. And those who can't afford the money for international travel [think Srinivasa Ramanujan types] could participate too.
I'm in the USA, a native, and I wholeheartedly agree with all the anti-US sentiments here. What was done to Sklyarov and his young family was criminal. This country is not a safe place. If I could speak to Ms. Wang I would suggest that this was a blessing and that she never consider travel to the USA in the future. I will start my own personal fund for donations from the "love-it-or-leave-it" sheep. Help me make it happen and I'm out of here.
I don't know, but I prefer to attend conferences outside USA, you know, to many angry enemies, make this country very dangerous. I liked USA, but I feel like many people from outside, that a trip to USA is worthless, I prefer in a paceful country with no enemies.
The US can just out-source visa processing to India. Ms. Wang would have got her visa in 2 day.
Hosting conferences in Canada is a great idea; we have very open laws for people who want to come here, and although ideas similar to the DMCA are being passed around, at least here in Canada, the rights of the people are still more important than the protections provided for corporations.
That being said, the US Government is a huge financier of security research. The point is made with conferences hosted by NIST, and also by conferences hosted by American corporations. One simply cannot expect this funding to continue if conferences are moved out of the U.S.
The obvious solution is tele-conferencing. To make this succeed it should not just be a matter of presence for presenters; the ability to remotely participate, at least as a viewer, for people is extremely appealing. I don't have the time or financial resources to attend even half of the conferences I would like to, but if I could attend via web-cast I would be absolutely ecstatic. This would open huge opportunities for participation and revenue as the larger cost for many conferences is actual travel and accomodation costs.
As far as moving the conference, there are several major crypto conferences in different parts of the world. Crypto is the oldest one and has always been located in Santa Barbara, California. It would be a shame to move it, given its historical status. Another conference of equal prestige is Eurocrypt, which is held in a different part of Europe each year. There is also Asiacrypt, which is rapidly growing in interest. These are the "big 3" which are run by the International Association for Cryptologic Research. In addition there are a bunch of other conferences which relate to specific areas of crypto or security research, in many parts of the world.
There is nothing unique about the U.S. as the only site for crypto conferences. It happens that this particular one has the oldest pedigree and has always been situated in the U.S. But there are plenty of other crypto conferences outside the U.S. where people can present their research.
As far as what happened to Dr. Wang, it is a real shame; apparently the IACR intervened and tried to expedite the process, without success. It may be that her talents lie more in the area of analyzing hash algorithms than submitting bureaucratic paperwork on time. She did make it to Crypto last year, so I don't know what was different this time around. I noticed that one of the other major hash-breakers, Eli Biham, didn't attend either this year.
Heard a story in the 80's from one of the students of Prof. Shamir (Israeli, of the RSA fame), about the Prof who had been invited to attend a Crypto conference in the US to talk about his research. No visa problems. However, the feds refused to let him attend since the "research to be presented deals with sensitive material crucial to US national security, thus not opened to foreign nationals.." . Whenever bureaucracy that goes by the book is at play, we will run into such stories. Solution? I don't know. Maybe to put a human being in the decision loop to weigh application credentials/importance etc.
A thought: If NIST is sponsoring the conference, can't they help with INS?
Surely, NIST can make an arrangement for a block of visa applications to be made, by a deadline, such that INS will process the applications before the conference.
In any case, conference organisers need to be very aware of visa issues, and should be talking to immigration authorities in their country to try to make appropriate arrangements in advance.
I'm an American graduate student, and I say, please! take the conferences out of my country. Until our universities feel a greater impact in their graduate student enrollment, faculty employment options, and conference-hosting abilities, my bosses will not step up and complain. In the end, the universities in the U.S. need to feel the drop in $$ and competitiveness. When that happens, the administrations will complain to the press and the government, and perhaps things will change for the better.
This is all optimistically speaking, of course, since my country is run by -- and has a lot of -- dangerous morons.
Places like Toronto and Montreal are already becoming more popular for conferences, if only because Americans in the North East can get there by bus or car in a half day. Naturally, European countries have a big opportunity here also.
There's another side to this. Foreign researchers sometimes have trouble coming to conferences in the U.S. because of visa issues. But foreign researchers currently in the U.S. who go to conferences in other countries sometimes have trouble returning to the U.S. because of visa issues.
I am a graduate student from Instute of Physics, Bhubaneswar, India.
I have been selected for the Graduate Student Award from Material
Research Society, USA. To recieve the award I have to attend the meeting
of this society during April 9-13 at San Francisco, CA.
I had VISA interview in KOLKATA,India on March 06, 2007 and I left
the passport there with hope that I may get the VISA in time. But
till now I have not heard anythig regarding my VISA.
One of my friends who stays in Delhi, is also a Physics gradute student
and will attend the same meeting, has got VISA without any delay. His
interview was in Delhi. Why KOLKATA office is delaying my VISA?
Yes there are problems with US visas, but I would say 85% of the above comments are inflated bogus stories. The other main reason for delay is
that there are more than a few people
abusing their visa status. Sorry but
true. All of us know of at least one to
three people here illegally.
I am sorry the writers think so poorly of my country. The countries I have visited have limitations but I do not hate
them for their short comings.
So you think foreign scientists who have worked hard to get advanced degrees, published papers and strived for excellence will throw away their efforts and careers to be homeless and jobless, or aspire to pick lettuce and clean toilets in the US?
Your ignorant and patronizing comment is stupid and insulting. I for one wouldn't waste my time going to the US if there was an alternative conference in Europe or Canada, places with more open minded people and less paranoia.
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