What does a DIY t-shirt with a dumb joke on it have in common with a thoughtful article written by a noted researcher at Johns Hopkins University? Both were pulled offline out of fear that they crossed the government's hazy lines demarcating acceptable behavior.
The researcher's name is Matthew Green. On Monday afternoon, his dean at Johns Hopkins, where he works as an instructor on cryptography, asked that Green remove copies of a blog post he'd written from university servers. That post, which is still at his personal site, dealt with a conversation between Green and ProPublica, which was working on last week's report based on a leak from Edward Snowden. The news outlet asked Green to speculate on how and if the NSA might be able to decrypt network data. The ensuing reports, Green writes, indicate that "the worst possible hypothetical I discussed appear to be true."
As part of writing the post, Green added the NSA logo to his page and linked to several of the documents ProPublica cites. Those documents are still technically classified by the United States government. Green didn't acquire or publish them, of course — he just linked to them. Green explains what happened in a series of tweets, which begin here. (We've gathered them into one paragraph for legibility.) "APL" refers to the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, which does a lot of national security work under contract with the government.
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 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 email 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.
Remove the logo, Green was told — presumably since it could be interpreted as some sort of endorsement from the agency — and don't link to classified documents. In a statement to Ars Technica, the school clarified its intent:
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.
Resolved. Miscommunication cleared up. The story ends well, but all is not well. Both of the school's concerns bring to mind other recent cases suggesting that the request to Green was less a mistake or aberration than another point in an uncomfortable trend.