Johns Hopkins University Falls Victim to the NSA Chilling Effect

What does a t-shirt making a dumb joke have in common with an article written by a noted researcher? Both were pulled offline out of fear that they crossed the government's hazy lines demarcating acceptable behavior.

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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.

First, the case of Chelsea Manning. The most serious charge Manning faced was that of "aiding the enemy," a charge predicated on her having shared classified documents with Wikileaks which she knew would be published online which she knew that al Qaeda would read. Ergo: Manning intended to aid the enemy.

It's an argument that seems specious on its face — but it was one taken seriously by the military judge trying Manning's case. She was eventually found not guilty of the charge, but as her attorney David Coombs suggested, the very concept that sharing information online that could be read by an enemy of America constituted a crime was a "very slippery slope, of basically punishing people for getting information out to the press."

The Green situation also brings to mind the case of Barrett Brown. On Sunday, The New York Times's David Carr presented the history of Brown's charges from the federal government. Largely for posting a link to a cache of documents stolen from Sratfor Global Intelligence in an online chat room, Brown faces over a century in prison. Carr writes:

Among the millions of Stratfor files were data containing credit cards and security codes, part of the vast trove of internal company documents. The credit card data was of no interest or use to Mr. Brown, but it was of great interest to the government. In December 2012 he was charged with 12 counts related to identity theft.

"By trying to criminalize linking," Carr continues, "the federal authorities in the Northern District of Texas … are suggesting that to share information online is the same as possessing it or even stealing it." As they did with Manning.

No wonder Johns Hopkins is skittish. This is an institution that has a partnership with the Department of Defense, a partnership that is itself what led to Green's blog post being removed (at least in his understanding). "It's not clear to me whether this request originated" with the Applied Physics Laboratory, he wrote in his clarification, "or if it came from elsewhere." The most likely explanation is that it came from someone at the APL. Someone nervous or annoyed or frustrated by reading a post which mentioned and linked to federal secrets. In the interest of smoothing things over, perhaps, Green was asked to take the post down. Not a big deal. Just pull the story.

That's what Zazzle did, too. Zazzle is the hyperactively-named company that played host to a t-shirt using the NSA logo in a parody design. We've reported on this before. The t-shirt showed the logo, then reading: "The NSA / The only part of the government that actually listens."

In short order, the shirt was removed, prompting excitable people online to suggest that the NSA was cracking down on dissidence. Nope. The NSA told the Daily Dot it wasn't them asking, just Zazzle pulling the shirts out of an abundance of caution. Just like Johns Hopkins asking Green to take the NSA logo off the blog on their servers.

Both institutions have every right to do so, of course; your right to free speech doesn't include my having to pay for you to express it. But it suggests that the chilling effect of situations like Brown's and Manning's is in full effect. Better to expunge the questionable material first, ask questions later. In that sense, we expect different things from a Johns Hopkins than a Zazzle, as Green notes. He continues his statement above:

I'm baffled by this entire thing. I hope to never receive an email 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.

More than that: we count on institutions powerful enough to host contrarian voices to do so. Especially when it makes the more-powerful unhappy.

Image: A parody image created by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Correction: This article originally stated that publishing classified documents is illegal. Thanks to Daniel Ellsberg, only leaking them is.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.