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The Blog Post That Came in From the Cold

The trouble with being uncertain where the feds are sticking their noses is that it can be just as hard to be certain where they are not.

Matthew Green, an assistant research professor in computer science at the Johns Hopkins University, sparked outrage on Twitter on Monday when he tweeted, “I received a request from my Dean this morning asking me to remove all copies of my NSA blog post from University servers.”

Mr. Green, who specializes in cryptography, had written about the National Security Agency on his personal blog last week. In the post, he speculated on details of the agency’s efforts to bypass data encryption in light of recent revelations by The New York Times and The Guardian.

The tweet immediately drew responses from Mr. Green’s followers, some of whom were surprised and disappointed by what they assumed to be an act of censorship.

“Isn’t the point of being in the academic setting, so that you have an institution to stand behind you?” wrote one respondent.

“WHAT. THE. F***!” wrote another. “So how much higher than the dean does it go?”

Mr. Green responded to say that the post was still online; the dean had simply banished a “mirror” copy that had resided on a university server. “And no,” he added, “this isn’t my Dean’s fault.”

Then whose fault was it? his followers responded en masse. At this point, Mr. Green’s account went silent.

Meanwhile, The Chronicle’s attempt to interview the dean—Andrew Douglas, interim dean of the engineering school at Johns Hopkins—was interrupted and hastily shut down by a member of the university’s communications team. The research professor did not respond to several e-mails.

Perhaps the professor had been spirited off the grid and placed in thumbscrews? And if so, was it the NSA or Johns Hopkins communications officers who had descended in black helicopters?

Several hours later, The Chronicle received a statement from a different member of the university’s public-relations team, Dennis O’Shea.

“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,” said the statement.

“Upon further review,” it continued, “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 will inform Professor Green that the mirror site may be restored.”

Who complained about the logo and the links? Mr. O’Shea said that he was looking into it, but that it was definitely not the federal government. Why did the university respond so credulously to the bogus claims about the “classified” links? Not sure. May The Chronicle ask the dean? No.

Eventually, Mr. Green—or perhaps a person writing in his likeness—did emerge on Twitter to elaborate on what had happened. The complaint allegedly had come from someone at the university’s Applied Physics Laboratory, Mr. Green wrote. (Mr. O’Shea would not confirm this.)

In any case, the researcher was nonplused by the affair, and said he hoped “to never receive an e-mail like that again.”

“I have no idea if this was serious or a tempest in a teapot,” he added. “What I have learned: Twitter is really a terrible way to give this explanation. Ow my thumbs …”

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