Students Censored—by the Boston ‘T’?

By August 14, 2008

Boston’s mass transit system, universally referred to as the "T" (but which is really the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, or MBTA), is apparently the most recent institution to move to censor America’s students. A report from CNet’s Declan McCullagh details how the MBTA went to a Massachusetts federal judge last Saturday to restrain three MIT students, Alessandro Chiesa, R.J. Ryan, and Zack Anderson, from discussing the vulnerabilities they discovered in Boston’s subway ticket system at the annual "Defcon" hacker’s conference in Las Vegas. (For those who don’t know, while a "hackers’ conference" might sound ominous–and the attendees are often people who operate in very gray areas of cyber-related law–Defcon has actually become a recognized platform for discussing computer security issues and is well-attended by the law enforcement community.) The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which is representing the students, is asking another judge today to lift this prior restraint on the students’ speech, especially considering that the conference is now over and that slides from the planned presentation are already out on the Web.

I highly recommend reading the article if you would like to know more about the details of the story. What struck me about this story is not only that we have a government agency other than a university that wants to silence students, but also that its desire to censor stems from the same impulse that we see in a lot of college and university cases–the MBTA wants to prevent internal problems from being discussed publicly. Unfortunately, this is no better a reason for the MBTA to censor than it is for your average campus.

The MBTA is undoubtedly worried that if the information about the ticket system that the MIT students were to relate gets out, the security of the system would be compromised. Solution: prevent anyone from talking about it! This is a response to a problem that only a bureaucrat could love. The nature of computer security is such that once a vulnerability is discovered, the only real solution is to fix it, because efforts will be made to exploit that vulnerability. And by drawing attention to the vulnerability by asking for a gag order on the students, the MBTA has guaranteed that hackers will work overtime to crack the MBTA’s system-and probably not the kind of hackers who attend a respected institution and who are willing to give an academic lecture on it to conference attendees. If, on the other hand, the MBTA had attended the conference, learned about the vulnerabilities, and moved quickly to fix them, its ticket system would be secure and it would not have gained reams of bad press for its attempt to abridge our fundamental liberties.

The MBTA’s "solution" to security problems exactly tracks the "solution" to offensive speech or expression that so many colleges and universities are promulgating today. If someone’s expression is making someone else uncomfortable, ban it! Our Red Alert schools, Colorado College, Brandeis University, Tufts University, Johns Hopkins University, and Valdosta State University, are excellent examples of institutions where this mindset dominates.

It’s hard to think of a more foolhardy way for an institution to treat expression it doesn’t like. First, banning a certain kind of expression gives it that certain frisson of excitement and interest that is present in anything that is forbidden. (George Carlin’s famous monologue "Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television" is famous for a reason.)

Second, banning expression simply means that those who would express themselves publicly may choose instead to express themselves in secret-and this is often a very undesirable outcome. In the case of the MBTA, what if the students, aware that prior restraint of any public talk they would give was a possibility, had simply discussed it on closed Internet forums with other, possibly more malevolent hackers? You’d probably see CharlieCards being sold on the streets of Boston a few months later at a considerable discount from their face value. How exactly would that help the MBTA or Boston’s taxpayers? As for the more conventional political discussions that we see in academia, I will paraphrase FIRE co-founder Harvey Silverglate’s pithy statement at this summer’s CFN conference: "If there’s a Holocaust denier in the room, I want them to have full freedom to speak so that I know who not to turn my back to!" Driving such people underground, where their ideas and speech will never face the withering criticism that they would face in the marketplace of ideas, is extremely unwise.

FIRE will keep you updated on how this case progresses.