Academics decry Hopkins' removal of professor's blog post

Dean apologizes; experts say Green's analysis of NSA's anti-encryption methods are valuable, should never have been removed

(Twitter )
September 10, 2013|By Kevin Rector, The Baltimore Sun

Matthew D. Green made a name for himself as the rare cryptography professor who will explain and critique the U.S. government's most controversial surveillance capabilities in layman's terms and unencumbered by a government security clearance or research contract that keeps others from speaking freely.

Green's blog is a popular destination for journalists and other academics, while thousands follow his Twitter feed. Colleagues applaud his clear analysis.

In recent weeks, Green thought his contributions to the growing public discourse surrounding the National Security Agency, including the recent revelations that it spent billions of dollars to circumvent standard encryption tools meant to protect private information across the Internet, were something his superiors at the Johns Hopkins University would encourage.

"I assumed that everybody was very supportive of this and this was a goal of the university, to be in the public eye," he said.

Then, on Monday, he got an email from Andrew Douglas, interim dean of the Whiting School of Engineering, asking him to remove a blog post he had written and posted on the university's servers offering analysis of the NSA revelations, linking to a New York Times article outlining the findings and including an image of the NSA logo.

Green's post criticized, among other things, the NSA's alleged meddling with or shaping of encryption standards and recruiting U.S. companies to help them ensure access to encrypted information through "back doors."

The "worst possible hypothetical" for the agency's reach that he had discussed with others was "true on a scale I couldn't even imagine," he wrote.

Green said on Twitter that Douglas told him to remove the blog post or get a lawyer. When that demand created a storm of criticism, the university quickly changed course.

The email blindsided Green, he said in an interview Tuesday.

"I had no idea that this was even an issue within the Johns Hopkins network or campus," he said.

Many of his supporters in academia were surprised but also angry, as were First Amendment and academic-rights advocates.

Not only did the university's action represent a blatant attack on the freedom and responsibility of academics to tell the truth and offer their expertise on issues of public importance, they said, but it also stifled the voice of a "rising star" in cryptography, one of few people able to explain the NSA revelations.

"The original post that Matthew Green wrote was not just any blog post. It was widely circulated and talked about a lot online because it was a respected cryptographer expressing shock at what had been revealed," said Jay Rosen, a New York University journalism professor and free-speech advocate who wrote a piece criticizing Hopkins for The Guardian, the British newspaper that helped break the NSA story based on documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

"The piece was a hugely important contribution to public debate on the limits of state power," Rosen said. "Any request from a university to unpublish your thoughts would be troublesome in the extreme, but the request to unpublish a post that had been so integral to public debate is even more extreme."

On Monday, as Green, Rosen and many others took to the Internet to voice their concerns with Hopkins' decision, officials immediately began backpedaling.

A review of the decision was launched, and Green was told he could repost the piece by the end of Monday. On Tuesday, officials acknowledged that they had mishandled the situation and should not have asked that the blog post — which was a mirror copy of a post on Green's own blog, which was never removed — be taken down. Douglas also wrote an apology to Green.

"I realize now that I acted too quickly, on the basis of inadequate and — as it turns out — incorrect information," Douglas wrote.

Dennis O'Shea, a university spokesman, said the blog post was noticed initially by an employee of the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, which does work for the NSA and whose employees are under some of the security restrictions that Green is free from. (He has been offered clearances in the past, but has turned them down in an effort to remain an independent voice, he said.)

That employee, who was not identified, alerted an employee at Hopkins' Homewood campus, where Green works, and that employee told Douglas, O'Shea said.

Douglas wrote that he is "wholly supportive of academic freedom" and apologized for having "undercut" Green's reputation.

"I am also aware of the contributions you are making to your field of information security and of the relevance of your comments to the important public debate that is now under way," Douglas wrote.

He also said his motivation was to protect the university and Green from "legal consequences."

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