The NSA's Next Move: Silencing University Professors?
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This actually happened yesterday:
A professor in the computer science department at Johns Hopkins, a leading American university, had written a post on his blog, hosted on the university's servers, focused on his area of expertise, which is cryptography. The post was highly critical of the government, specifically the National Security Agency, whose reckless behavior in attacking online security astonished him.
Professor Matthew Green wrote on 5 September:
I was totally unprepared for today's bombshell revelations describing the NSA's efforts to defeat encryption. Not only does the worst possible hypothetical I discussed appear to be true, but it's true on a scale I couldn't even imagine.
The post was widely circulated online because it is about the sense of betrayal within a community of technical people who had often collaborated with the government. (I linked to it myself.)
On Monday, he gets a note from the acting dean of the engineering school asking him to take the post down and stop using the NSA logo as clip art in his posts. The email also informs him that if he resists he will need a lawyer. The professor runs two versions of the same site: one hosted on the university's servers, one on Google's blogger.com service. He tells the dean that he will take down the site mirrored on the university's system but not the one on blogger.com. He also removes the NSA logo from the post. Then, he takes to Twitter.
I received a request from my Dean this morning asking me to remove all copies of my NSA blog post from University servers.
— Matthew Green (@matthew_d_green) September 9, 2013
The professor says he was told that someone at the Applied Physics Laboratory, a research institute with longstanding ties to the Department of Defense and the National Security Agency, determined that his blog post was hosting or linking to classified material, and sounded the alarm, which led to the takedown request from the dean. He says he thought Johns Hopkins University, his employer, had come down "on the wrong side of common sense and academic freedom", particularly since the only classified material he had linked to was from news reports in the Guardian, the New York Times and ProPublica.org – information available to the public.
Word gets around, and by late afternoon, the press starts asking questions. Now, Johns Hopkins is worried about how it looks in the media. The univeresity bureaucracy scrambles the jets and comes up with a statement:
The university received information this morning that Matthew Green's blog contained a link or links to classified material and also used the NSA logo. For that reason, we asked professor Green to remove the Johns Hopkins-hosted mirror site for his blog Upon further review, we note that the NSA logo has been removed and that he appears to link to material that has been published in the news media. Interim Dean Andrew Douglas has informed professor Green that the mirror site may be restored.
So the university backs down, leaving many unanswered questions. Possibly, they will be addressed today. Here are some on my list:
Who was it in the Applied Physics Laboratory, with its close ties to theNSA, that raised the alarm about what a (very effective) critic of the NSA was writing ... and why?
Did that person hear first from the government and then contact the Johns Hopkins officials?
Why would an academic dean cave under pressure and send the takedown request without careful review, which would have easily discovered, for example, that the classified documents to which the blog post linked were widely available in the public domain?