Criticizing Surveillance Matters

We know from the documents leaked by Edward Snowden that the NSA has been collecting huge amounts of data on people. We also know that they’ve been introducing backdoors and other security holes into cryptographic standards that underly all sorts of software. (Over on the BCLA Information Policy Committee blog I wrote a post about why that should matter to librarians, which has a bunch of links to news sources about what’s going on if you’d like a refresher.)

A cryptography professor named Matthew Green wrote a critical post about the NSA last week too. His is much more informed than mine, being a, you know, expert on cryptography. His dean then asked him to take the post down. Green’s explanation (concatenated from Twitter by Ars Technica):

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.


Jay Rosen has some very important questions about the story:

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?

Why is Johns Hopkins simultaneously saying that the event was internal to the university (that the request didn’t come from the government) and that it doesn’t know how the whole thing began? The dean of the engineering school doesn’t know who contacted him about a professor’s blog post? Really? The press office doesn’t know how to get in touch with the dean? Seems unlikely. …

In commenting critically on a subject he is expert in, and taking an independent stance that asks hard questions and puts the responsibility where it belongs, Matthew Green is doing exactly what a university faculty member is supposed to be doing. By putting his thoughts in a blog post that anyone can read and link to, he is contributing to a vital public debate, which is exactly what universities need to be doing more often. Instead of trying to get Matthew Green’s blog off their servers, the deans should be trying to get more faculty into blogging and into the public arena. Who at Johns Hopkins is speaking up for these priorities? And why isn’t the Johns Hopkins faculty roaring about this issue? (I teach at New York University, and I’m furious.)

So just in case anyone thought that the massive surveillance apparatus was solely a Privacy kind of issue, let’s be clear that this is an Intellectual Freedom one too. If people are being attempted-intimidated into not commenting on huge democratic issues of our day, that is a big fucking problem.

The Library Loon tied this into how managers of cultural memory and educational organizations need to “get into the habit of protecting their people” because

Freedoms to criticize our government agencies have to be defended, and this isn’t just an American thing. Canadians need to know how our spy agencies are collecting information about us. Remember that our government considers environmental activists threats to national security and anti-Olympic activists legitimate targets of surveillance. Surveillance chill is something that affects our intellectual freedom and something librarians need to be helping draw attention to.


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