Johns Hopkins reverses decision forcing prof to pull NSA post

After a professor pens a blog post about the NSA's alleged clandestine program to break digital encryptions, the university asks him to take it down... then changes its mind.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
3 min read

Johns Hopkins University was alerted earlier Monday that one of its professors wrote a blog post allegedly linking to classified National Security Agency documents. Swiftly, the university asked this professor to take down his post. However, hours later, when the school realized he was just linking to news articles -- he was allowed to reinstate the blog post.

The whole debacle began after major news stories spread across the Web last Thursday detailing claims that the NSA has been setting up a clandestine program to break digital encryptions for everything from users' smartphones to everyday e-mails to medical records.

Matthew Green, who is a well-known cryptographer and research professor at Johns Hopkins University, penned a blog post about the NSA's alleged capabilities to defeat encryption on that same day. And, today, he was asked by Johns Hopkins to take this blog post down.

Originally, Green wrote the blog post on his personal Google Blogger site, which was then also published on Hopkins' mirror site. The mirror site post was taken down, but Green's Blogger post stayed up. According to Green's Twitter feed, someone from the university's Applied Physics Laboratory determined his post was linking to classified government documents.

The university works closely with the NSA, and the Applied Physics Laboratory has several projects with the government agency, according to ProPublica. The documents that Green had linked to were government documents published by The New York Times in its report last week.

"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," Johns Hopkins spokesman Dennis O'Shea told CNET. "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 has informed professor Green that the mirror site may be restored."

So, what exactly did Green's blog say? Basically, he said he has no doubt that the NSA is working to break digital encryptions. Green speculates, "The NSA has been doing some very bad things." He says that at a combined cost of $250 million per year, the agency has allegedly promoted weak or vulnerable cryptography, worked with hardware and software vendors to weaken encryption, attacked the encryption used by the next generation of 4G phones, and much more.

Much of what Green writes is also reported in The New York Times, the Guardian, and ProPublica reports published on Thursday. These reports explain how the agency allegedly bypassed common Internet encryption methods in a number of ways, including hacking into the servers of private companies to steal encryption keys, collaborating with tech companies to build in back doors, and covertly introducing weaknesses into encryption standards.

Much of this leaves one to speculate whether the government was involved with asking that Green's blog post be taken down. However, O'Shea said the request came solely from the university.

"We did not receive any inquiry from the federal government about the blog or any request from the government to take down the mirror site," O'Shea said. "As to where the information did come from, we are still tracing the path of this event, which all exploded into our notice over the past couple of hours. So I don't think we're ready yet with an answer on that."