The Dark Penumbra of Hopkins

To: Edmund G. Skrodzki, Executive Director, JHU Security

Director Skrodzki,

I come to you on a matter of grave urgency, greatly dismayed by the conduct your officers are displaying on the campus I have inhabited for the last five years. I hope that you will see this, as I do, as a situation requiring a significant response within the JHU Security apparatus.

This evening, Sunday, February 8, 2009, I was walking to my car, which I keep in one of the Wyman surface lots. When I arrived in the lot, I noticed that a graduate student was testing a network deployment of sensor motes, using the lot as an interference-free zone on which to test on this unseasonably warm evening. I am familiar with the motes and with the challenges of testing them well, as I spent three semesters in the Hopkins InterNetworking Research Group, which is one of the nation’s finest sensor networking research groups. Testing their networking capabilities is made extremely difficult on most of the Hopkins campus, as our campus-wide WiFi deployment is orders of magnitude stronger than their tiny antennas can transmit– thus the student was lucky to find a clear, dry night on which to test his sensors.

All, then, would have been in order; our institution is one dedicated to the pursuit of research, and to see a graduate student thus engaged is one of the pleasures of working here. Unfortunately, this scene was marred by the JHU Security officer berating the student – and I do not use that word lightly– for having the audacity of attempting to conduct his research.

When I came upon the scene, the officer was attempting to order the student– whose first language was not English, and who was having a great deal of trouble making clear his work– to “get rid of all that crap,” meaning, I would suppose, to destroy his careful research testbed and the several hours of test data he had accumulated that night. This despite the student identifying himself, as requested, as a JHU student, and having obediently handed over his J-Card to the officer. The student was understandably distraught that his work was being trampled, but his attempts to explain his experiments– which, to be clear, were both sanctioned and required by his research as a second-year Ph.D. student in the Department of Computer Science, and which took place in an entirely empty parking lot on the outermost reaches of the Homewood campus, at a time when no employees use it– were shouted off by the officer, who refused even to leave his vehicle to examine the network, let alone take the time to actually care about the work this student was performing.

As a member of the department and a student of Johns Hopkins, then, I intervened on his behalf; the officer immediately decided that I was a threat to his trampling the research of this graduate student, and refused to speak with me; I nonetheless persisted, explaining that the student was conducting research blessed by our department and the School of Engineering, and the officer had no grounds on which to interfere with someone he had already acknowledged was a student. The officer made some thinly-veiled threat, and made the universal demand of every hostile overseer, “papers, please!” I gave him my name, and gave him full leave to contact my department to check that I, too, am a student in good standing. I then took the student off to ask about his work, leaving the muttered threats of the officer behind.

What’s shocking about this incident, to me, is that the officer saw fit to harass a student– whom he had identified as such– for literally no reason, and with no possible cause for concern. The student was using space not reserved by any group or individual, and indeed space not used for any purpose at the time at which he wanted it (since the lots are almost exclusively used by employees, a Sunday evening guarantees no one will be around– and these devices were not going to be left in the area; indeed, lest one attempt to assert that they would have been, I will state that they could not have been, as they were not weatherized, and had bare circuit boards). This officer just wanted to pick on a student he knew couldn’t fight back, as he wasn’t able to speak English well enough to defend himself; the actions of a bully, if ever I have seen them.

I left the area, attending to the business for which I had originally sought my car; when I returned, approximately 45 minutes later, the student– who had, at long last, been left to his work by the guard– said that the guard had left, but subsequently returned, demanding my whereabouts. The student attempted to ask for what purpose they sought me, and they refused to answer his perfectly valid question.

Director Skrodzki, this incident is not an isolated one; your officers seem to want to create the environment on this campus of a police state, and random interrogations of students for no possible cause happen all the time, particularly at night, and particularly, in my experience, to the non-native English speakers. I am sure this is not a policy you espouse or endorse, and this is why I want to bring it to your attention– so that you can put a stop to what is becoming a dangerous situation on this campus.

I hope that you will take this request to heart, and put a stop to this behavior by whatever means you deem appropriate to the gravity of the situation.

Thank you very much for your time, and your quick attention to this gravest of matters. Should I be able to provide more information regarding this incident, please do not hesitate to contact me.

—Brendan O’Connor

—Master’s Candidate, Department of Computer Science

—President, Upsilon Pi Epsilon

I sent this letter, precisely as written, to the head of JHU’s security contingent on February 8.

I had hoped to write this blog post, and after this letter, speak movingly of the drastic changes effected by the Director in response to the blatant racism in the officers under his command. Barring that, I hoped at least to report that the officer responsible had been disciplined.

Instead, this is what happened:

  • On February 9, I was summoned to meet, not with the Director, but with one of the other administrators, one Major Kibler. When I expressed concern that this matter should be handled at the highest level, he assured me that he was of sufficient standing.
  • In that meeting, Major Kibler first accused me of lying, then exaggerating.
  • Once I had dispelled these accusations, Major Kibler said that the officer was just doing what he felt was necessary to, and I quote, “prevent terrorism.” Yes, he used the t-word. Note that, by his own admission, Major Kibler had not yet even bothered to speak to the officer– who knows? He might have admitted malicious intentions.
  • Major Kibler said that terrorists could well use the outlying JHU parking lots (not even our multi-level parking structures– the badly-paved scraps of waste land, long walks away from our buildings) to plan their attacks, and this justified any measures the officer might have taken, though the Major himself “might have handled it differently.”
  • He assured me that he would follow up with the officer in question, and then tell me what had transpired.

Well, dear readers, besides the unbelievable irrationality of the arguments presented here, which I’ll let stand on their own, it’s now February 27– three business weeks later. I have not heard a single, solitary thing from JHU Security– and indeed, I never expected to. What else is to be expected from a group of people that, in addition to their various problems with students, aided the illegal surveillance of antiwar groups?

I’m not surprised. I’ve spent nearly five years here at Hopkins, after all.

But what would have happened to this poor Ph.D student if I hadn’t happened along? How many other students have had their work destroyed for no reason? And what on earth were those guards who came back to stalk me trying to do? (That little detail, by the way, does not show up in the official incident report– which is particularly troubling.)

So no, I’m not surprised. I’m just saddened.