Johns Hopkins Demand To Professor To Remove Blog Post Was Over Totally Bogus Concerns

from the but-of-course dept

We wrote about the Dean of the Engineering School at Johns Hopkins telling cryptography expert and professor Matthew Green to remove his excellent blog post analyzing what attack vectors the NSA might be using to get around encrypted conversations. A few more details have come out, initially via Green’s own Twitter feed, which were then mushed together into paragraph form via Ars Technica, which also provides some follow up information. First up, is Green’s summary:

So listen, I’m trying not to talk about this much because anything I say will make it worse. What I’ve been told is that someone on the APL [Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory—motto: “Enhancing national security through science and technology”] side of JHU discovered my blog post and determined that it was hosting/linking to classified documents. This requires a human since I don’t believe there’s any automated scanner for this process. It’s not clear to me whether this request originated at APL or if it came from elsewhere. All I know is that I received an e-mail this morning from the Interim Dean of the Engineering school asking me to take down the post and to desist from using the NSA logo. He also suggested I should seek counsel if I continued. In any case I made it clear that I would not shut down my non-JHU blog, but I did shut down a JHU-hosted mirror. I also removed the NSA logo. I did not remove any links or photos of NOW PUBLIC formerly classified material, because that would just be stupid.

I’m baffled by this entire thing. I hope to never receive an e-mail like that again and I certainly believe JHU (APL) is on the wrong side of common sense and academic freedom, regardless of their obligations under the law. That said, I have no desire to cause trouble for any of the very good people at JHU so I’ll keep my posts off JHU property. I have no idea if this was serious or a tempest in a teapot.

Separately, JHU put out a statement stating the following:

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 will inform Professor Green that the mirror site may be restored.

Later, JHU told Ars Technica that it had not received a government request, but rather made all of these determinations internally.

Let’s pick apart these arguments, because nearly all of them are completely bogus, and JHU’s initial decision to send the request to Green was incredibly screwed up on a variety of levels. First off, on the question of the use of the logo. There has been some confusion over this, in part because of a silly law, 18 USC 701, which tries to bar the use of such logos for the purpose of impersonating an official from those agencies. Unfortunately, some like to interpret that as a full ban on using such logos even in reporting. But that’s wrong. Green has every right to use the logo in his post.

Similarly, the links to “classified material,” as Green himself notes, involved material that is clearly now in the public, having been reported on and discussed widely in a variety of news sources, starting off with the NY Times, The Guardian and Pro Publica. Of course, he does slightly overstate his case in pointing out that they’re public — as for really dumb reasons that we’ve discussed before the government still likes to pretend that classified info that is being widely discussed and shown in the press is still “classified.”

Either way, neither of those arguments justify asking Green to take down the blog post. Green was engaged in a public debate over very important topics, and did so in a perfectly reasonable and legitimate way. That JHU sought to stifle his speech raises serious questions about the way in which JHU views free speech and basic academic freedom. Even if there were slight concerns over the logo or the links, even a very simple review of the situation, along with a principled stand on free expression should have resulted in the school choosing not to do what it did.

Of course, the real hint at what happened comes from the beginning of Green’s explanation — that the complaint came from the APL, which (as some have pointed out) is really a defense contractor rather than an academic institution. It seems likely that the APL was much more concerned about pissing off its partners and colleagues at the NSA, rather than basic concepts such as academic freedom and freedom of speech. While JHU has allowed the post to go back up since the logo is gone, that’s a really weak response. JHU should admit that it screwed up royally, and was driven by the short-term economic interests of the APL, rather than the long term interests of protecting its key academics.

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Comments on “Johns Hopkins Demand To Professor To Remove Blog Post Was Over Totally Bogus Concerns”

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Anonymous Coward says:

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.

Translation “I got a message about a professor’s blog post, and proceeded to do no actual investigation before demanding he take it down, and threatening legal action if he didn’t. ow that the media is reporting on my stupidity, I’m going to backpedal as hard as I can without admitting my actions to have been completely baseless.

Anonymous Coward says:

and how many times before are things taken down supposedly due to all manner of infringements or what have you when the claims are entirely false? the problem there is, yet again, the law. when any take down is received, the article/item in question should be able to be reviewed first. if necessary after that review, then remove the what ever it is, not before! doing things how they are atm is because of the possibility/probability of law suits even though there is no justification.

PopeRatzo (profile) says:

Administrators in Love

If you look at the growth in payrolls at private universities, the growth has been entirely in administration. If you’re in the upper-administration of a university like JHU, you’re getting paid like a CEO. And that’s the problem. Do you think when Larry Summers was the president of Harvard that he identified more with the professors or with the rich and powerful.

So I don’t think it’s because of undue pressure on JHU admin that Green got his takedown notice. It was because university administrators, corporate CEOs and powerful people in government are all asshole buddies and look out for one another. I’m sure somebody whispered in somebody’s ear, but I doubt it took any persuading.

The think about police states is, if you can get close to the power, you can do very very well. And make no mistake, the administrators at JHU want to be very close to power.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Re: It Has All Happened Before (to PopeRatzo, #7).

Look at:

Clyde W. Barrow, Universities and the Capitalist State, Corporate Liberalism and the Reconstruction of American Higher Education, 1894-1928, University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.

This kind of thing has all happened before. The classic example was Scott Nearing, a radical economist who, in 1915, on the covert orders of businessmen, was fired from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania for, inter alia, opposing child labor. Nearing eventually responded to academic blacklisting by “doing a Thoreau,” moving to then-remote parts of Vermont, and later, Maine, where he could live off the land, and grow his own food, build his own housing, etc. Considering his publication list, he seems to have gotten on rather better, doing “bread labor,” as he called it, than many conventional academics did, teaching freshmen.

Of course child labor still exists, albeit in countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Bangladesh. Likewise, there are American businessmen who have a vested interest in importing the products of child labor– and they pull strings. One would not be particularly surprised if a certain Johns Hopkins University dean were next to come to our attention in this connection.

New Mexico Mark says:

Re: Re:

Even better, he should collaborate with other professors to set up an overseas-hosted “unofficial JHU blog site — where free speech is actually encouraged and anonymity is allowed (we’ll even show you how)”.

Assuming it was successful in effectively replacing the official blog, it would not only solve problems like this one, but would (appropriately) annoy “free speech challenged” administrative wonks who see themselves as the gatekeepers of academic “freedom”.

bosconet (profile) says:

Hopkins, APL and contracts

My guess over what happened is someone at APL saw the post and due to their contracts with NSA and the silly pretense than documents freely available to all are still considered classified contacted JHU to ask for the removal of the post to prevent NSA was accusing APL to leaking classified documents which would put them in breach of contract.

All very dumb yes, but no conspiracy to suppress the post from the internet just from Johns Hopkins associated resources.

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