The Death Of Aaron Swartz: Why We May Never Know The Truth

By @FrederickReese |
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    While no one will ever know for sure what motivated U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz’s office to pursue the case against digital pioneer Aaron Swartz, recent events have led to some theories.

    In a recent article posted by, WikiLeaks has revealed that Swartz did contribute to the organization and had been in contact with Julian Assange. This information was disclosed “due to the investigation into the Secret Service involvement with #AaronSwartz.”

    Via three tweets, Swartz’s relationship with WikiLeaks was laid bare:

    “Aaron Swartz assisted WikiLeaks #aaronwartz”

    “Aaron Swartz was in communication with Julian Assange, including during 2010 and 2011”

    “We have strong reasons to believe, but cannot prove, that Aaron Swartz was a WikiLeaks source. #aaronswartz”

    As WikiLeaks has an anonymous base, proving this would be impossible. However, Kristinn Hrafnsson, a representative for WikiLeaks, verified the tweets for CNET.

    “We can not provide details about the security of our media organisation or its anonymous drop box for sources because to do so would help those who would like to compromise the security of our organisation and its sources,” WikiLeaks states on its website. “What we can say is that we operate a number of servers across multiple international jurisdictions and we do not keep logs. Hence these logs can not be seized. Anonymization occurs early in the WikiLeaks network, long before information passes to our web servers. Without specialized global internet traffic analysis, multiple parts of our organisation must conspire with each other to strip submitters of their anonymity.”

    Bradley Manning is currently charged and facing trial for the release of information to WikiLeaks. His trial is scheduled to start June 2013.

    The hacktivist organization Anonymous attacked the MIT network in response to Swartz’s death and the university’s involvement. There is no evidence suggesting that Swartz was involved with Anonymous, although he did work with Rootstrikers and Avaaz.

    But, the hard and fast summary to all of this is that Swartz did commit a crime, regardless of the situation behind it. As argued in Rob Weir in Inside Higher Ed, “I do assert, though, that he was no hero. The appropriate label is one he once proudly carried: hacker. Hacking, no matter how principled, is a form of theft. It’s easy to trivialize what Swartz did because it was just a database of academic articles. I wonder if his supporters would have felt as charitable if he had ‘freed’ bank deposits. His was not an innocent act. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts took the not-unreasonable position that there is a considerable difference between downloading articles from free accounts registered with a university, and purloining 4.8 million documents by splicing into wiring accessed via unauthorized entry into a computer closet.”


    The  United States versus Swartz

    Aaron Swartz, at the age of 26, allegedly killed himself in his apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y. by means of hanging Jan. 11, 2013. Swartz was a pioneer in digital media, founding Infogrami, a wiki platform he created after dropping out of Stanford his sophomore year. His Infogrami company ultimately merged with Reddit and was part of Reddit’s sale to Conde Nast in 2006. He is better known for his involvement in the open access movement, which advocates the free distribution of journalistic articles, theses, government documentation and other non-copyrighted work toward the enlightenment of all.

    On Jan. 6, 2011, two Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) police officers and a U.S. Secret Service agent arrested Swartz on the campus of Harvard University on state charges of breaking and entering with the intent to commit a felony (Swartz was a research fellow at Harvard at the time and was authorized to use the university’s network and facilities).

    The state dropped their charges once the federal government indicted him. According to the indictment entered into the U.S. District Court for Massachusetts, Swartz was charged with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, recklessly damaging a protected computer, aiding and abetting and criminal forfeiture.

    According to the indictment, “As JSTOR, and then MIT, became aware of these efforts to steal a vast proportion of JSTOR’s archive, each took steps to block the flow of articles to Swartz’s computer and thus to prevent him from redistributing them. Swartz, in turn, repeatedly altered the appearance of his Acer laptop and the apparent source of his automated demands to get around JSTOR’s and MIT’s blocks against his computer.”

    It is in the fine details that the allegations fall apart.

    JSTOR is a not-for-profit digital library designed to provide universities and libraries access to academic journals, books, and primary sources. JSTOR is a paid service which charges per printed page. According to federal authorities, over a few weeks in late 2010 and early 2011, Swartz installed a Python script called onto the MIT student network that downloaded one file from JSTOR after another — sometimes, disrupting the network’s bandwidth. In an attempt to avoid the transfer being interrupted, Swartz plugged his laptop into a networking closet and left it. He was arrested when he attempted to retrieve it.

    Swartz was an advocate for the free release of information to the people. In 2008, Swartz downloaded approximately 20 percent of the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) database for the U.S. Federal Court and released it to the public on Swartz argued that the documents belonged to the people, as no federal document can be copyrighted. In 2006, Swartz acquired the Library of Congress’s complete bibliographic dataset. The library charges users for access to this, but as it is a government document, it is copyright-free. Swartz released it to Open Library.


    The case against the government

    The case against Swartz, which was, at heart, a case brought under the Computer Fraud and Abuses Act, was troubled, at best. The law was designed to punish those that downloaded protected material for gain. While the law makes no distinctions over humanistic gestures, it is obvious among many of the observers that the government was stepping outside the lines with this case.

    Alex Stamos, a computer security expert for the defense, wrote, “If I had taken the stand as planned and had been asked by the prosecutor whether Aaron’s actions were ‘wrong,’ I would probably have replied that what Aaron did would better be described as ‘inconsiderate.’ In the same way it is inconsiderate to write a check at the supermarket while a dozen people queue up behind you or to check out every book at the library needed for a History 101 paper. It is inconsiderate to download lots of files on shared wifi or to spider Wikipedia too quickly, but none of these actions should lead to a young person being hounded for years and haunted by the possibility of a 35-year sentence.”

    The New York Times wrote, “A respected Harvard researcher who also is an Internet folk hero has been arrested in Boston on charges related to computer hacking, which are based on allegations that he downloaded articles that he was entitled to get free.”

    As a researcher for Harvard, he had free and clear access to the database he was accused of stealing from.

    In addition. JSTOR was not seeking charges to be pressed against Swartz. JSTOR released a statement after Swartz’s arrest stating that Swartz’s downloads were a “significant misuse” committed in an “unauthorized fashion.” While MIT was more unclear about its intentions, there was no suggestion it asked the government to prosecute. MIT’s network is open and unsecured. This is intentional. The head of network security admitted to the network’s openness and intentional lack of security.

    However, in a Boston Globe piece, it appears that MIT was the party that pushed for prison time. In a deal negotiated with the U.S. Attorney’s office, Swartz would serve no jail time, but MIT rejected the deal.

    A more troubling issue is the presence of the Secret Service officer at Swartz’s arrest. If Swartz was arrested on state charges, why would a federal officer be asked to accompany, and if a federal officer was asked to accompany, shouldn’t it have been a FBI agent? A better question is when was the Secret Service brought in? Unless the Secret Service was already investigating Swartz, a Secret Service agent shouldn’t be available to service the “crime scene.” According to the Secret Service’s website, “The mission of the United States Secret Service is to safeguard the nation’s financial infrastructure and payment systems to preserve the integrity of the economy, and to protect national leaders, visiting heads of state and government, designated sites and National Special Security Events.” While the Secret Service does have an Electronic Crimes Task Force in Boston, wouldn’t the Cambridge Police have to ascertain it was a crime in the first place, and not a mistake by a student?

    The theft of academic papers downloaded from an unsecured network does not meet the Secret Service’s mandate for electronic crimes.

    So, why would the Secret Service take over a case outside of its mandate?

    The Secret Service and the United States Attorney Office are actively being investigated for their involvement in this case.

    In the government’s response to Swartz’s legal team’s motion to suppress, the government argued, “During the period alleged in the Superseding Indictment, Aaron Swartz was a fellow at Harvard University’s Safra Center for Ethics, on whose website he was described as a ‘writer, hacker and activist.’  Harvard provided Swartz with access to JSTOR’s services and archives as needed for his research there. Swartz was not a student, faculty member or employee of MIT. In the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, which Swartz actively participated in drafting and had posted on one of his websites, Swartz advocated ‘tak[ing] information, wherever it is stored, mak[ing] our copies and shar[ing] them with the world.’”

    The actual text of the manifesto says, “We need to take information, wherever it stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.”

    Elliot Peters, Swartz’s attorney at the time of his death, tells the Boston Globe, “There was such rigidity with the people we were dealing with. I couldn’t find anyone in that office to talk about proportionality and humanity. It was driven by a desire to turn this into a significant case, so that some prosecutor could put it in his portfolio.”

    A lost genius

    Aaron Swartz was born Nov. 8, 1986 in Chicago, Ill. to Susan and Robert Swartz. His father was the founder of a software company, and via this, Swartz was immersed into computer technology at a young age. At age 13, Swartz won the ArsDigita Prize, given to the best “useful, educational and collaborative” noncommercial website created by a young person. At age 14, Swartz was a member of the authoring group that created the RSS 1.0 web syndication specification.

    Swartz served on the RDF Core working group at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). He authored RFC 3870, and was a co-author of Markdown, which simplified HTML coding.

    Swartz was also the co-founder of Demand Progress, an advocacy group that organized people to “take action by contacting Congress and other leaders, funding pressure tactics, and spreading the word” online about civil liberties and governmental reforms. He was also involved in the fight against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and was a volunteer editor for Wikipedia. Selfless to a fault, he gave up multiple opportunities to amass wealth towards serving the public will.

    At the time of his death, Swartz was suffering from a heart condition and depression.

    Charges against Swartz were dropped posthumously. Congress is currently considering an amendment to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, entitled Aaron’s Law, which would ban prosecution for terms of service violations.

    In an official statement released by Swartz’s family and partner, the family spoke to the perceived injustice of Aaron’s last years: “Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The U.S. Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles. “

    JSTOR also released a statement: “We have had inquiries about JSTOR’s view of this sad event given the charges against Aaron and the trial scheduled for April. The case is one that we ourselves had regretted being drawn into from the outset, since JSTOR’s mission is to foster widespread access to the world’s body of scholarly knowledge. At the same time, as one of the largest archives of scholarly literature in the world, we must be careful stewards of the information entrusted to us by the owners and creators of that content. To that end, Aaron returned the data he had in his possession and JSTOR settled any civil claims we might have had against him in June 2011. “

    JSTOR has released for free many of the documents Swartz was accused of stealing.

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    • Jon Takaki

      Secret service, government, hacker-activist, wikileak source, research fellow at Harvard on institutional corruption, suicide 2 weeks before trial… Humm… This would be a great movie!! I would like them to include a vivid scene of his last minutes, when the secret service knock on Aaron’s door on January 11th and acted fast before his girlfriend returned, to stage a suicide. The kind of compromising information he was able to “steal” pertaining to government corruption, and that he was most certainly going to use for his trial, we shall unfortunately never know, and will remain the subject of speculation, some of which plausible like the case for an elite pedophile ring Swartz could potentially prove and expose (search for investigative journalist Yoichi Shimatsu).