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NSA controversy sparks dialogue at open forum

By NICOLE ZIEGLER | October 10, 2013

Last Thursday, the Human Rights Working Group (HRWG) at Hopkins led an open forum to discuss the ethics of classified research in response to the recent NSA-related blog controversy involving Matthew Green, an assistant research professor in the computer science department.

Green, an expert on cryptographic engineering, recently wrote a blog post revealing previously encrypted information that originated at the National Security Agency (NSA).

After hearing about the linked information from the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), Dean of the Whiting School of Engineering Andrew Douglas forced Green to remove his post. Douglas later realized that all of the information Green referenced had actually been previously published online and issued an apology for his actions.

The open forum hosted both undergraduate and graduate students from multiple University campuses. The forum also included Hopkins professors from several different fields. The discussion was led by graduate student William Miller.

The fact that spurred Douglas to action was the amount of classified research conducted at Hopkins. This, in turn, was the a main topic of discussion at the forum.

“The HRWG simply wanted to follow-up on the Matthew Green incident,” Miller wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “We wanted to know how others feel about it and what others think we should do next. Given the strong turnout and the evident excitement of those present, I think the event was a success. But it was just a start.”

Dissatisfaction with the response to the Matthew Green controversy defined the tone of the forum. Professors and students alike expressed concerns about the incident at APL.

“I think the Matt Green incident shows what Pentagon and NSA contracts — especially for classified research — can do to a university,” Professor Joel Andreas wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “They can put a chill on free speech and open inquiry and discussion. Why did Dean Andrews jump when the School of Engineering got a call from someone at APL about Matt Green’s blog that was critical of the NSA? Because Hopkins and APL get over a billion dollars a year in contracts from the Pentagon and the NSA.”

Furthermore, Andreas expressed worries about what this incident might mean for the Homewood Campus.

“I imagine the environment at APL is extremely intolerant of the kind of criticism of NSA spying that was in Matt Green’s blog,” Andreas wrote. “I’m worried — now that APL is moving part of its operations to the new Malone Hall on the Homewood campus, with the express purpose of collaborating more closely with the School of Engineering and other Hopkins units to win military contracts, can we expect that our campus will go in this direction?”

Another key point that the open forum highlighted was the general lack of awareness of the Matthew Green incident on the Homewood Campus. What was clear was that students on campus are generally uninformed about how important APL is to Hopkins as an institution, how the United States Navy is a key sponsor of APL and how APL is known for its role in drone research. Much of the government-related research at APL is kept classified.

“It is important that someone in power address concerns raised by this incident. It’s one thing to say that it was a mistake — it clearly was that. But it was a telling mistake, and one worth probing,” Miller said.

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