Famed activist-programmer charged with hacking MIT, academic journal

Aaron Swartz, seen at a 2008 Creative Commons event, faces federal charges of hacking an academic journal and posting its content online. (Photo: Creative Commons)

A Cambridge man faces federal charges of hacking, U.S. attorneys revealed Tuesday, but not of personal information such as Social Security numbers or credit card data. Aaron Swartz, 24, is charged with stealing content from academic journals to which he may already have had access and making the content free to others on file-sharing sites.

Swartz is famous, in Internet terms: He is the co-founder of the popular Reddit site, a “technology whiz kid” famous for writing a vital Web content-sharing program at age 14 and has a Wikipedia page identifying him as a writer, activist, including helping found and lead with two liberal political action groups, and programmer. (He also has a blog and twitterfeed on which he extols the delights of Harvard Square and even makes 2009 election recommendations in his adopted hometown, to which he moved after growing up in Chicago and a stint at Stanford, according to Web sources.)

A federal indictment unsealed Tuesday charges Swartz with computer intrusion, fraud and data theft in incidents that targeted the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Jstor, a not-for-profit archive of scientific journals and academic work. (The formal charges in the indictment are wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer and recklessly damaging a protected computer.) Swartz surrendered himself in U.S. District Court in Boston this morning, pleading not guilty.

If convicted, Swartz faces up to 35 years in prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release, restitution, forfeiture and a fine of up to $1 million.

His own website gives a hint as to his intentions with Jstor, describing himself as

the author of numerous articles on a variety of topics, especially the corrupting influence of big money on institutions including nonprofits, the media, politics, and public opinion. In conjunction with Shireen Barday, he downloaded and analyzed 441,170 law review articles to determine the source of their funding; the results were published in the Stanford Law Review. From 2010-11, he researched these topics as a Fellow at the Harvard Ethics Center Lab on Institutional Corruption.

Swartz has an interest in open information of all kinds, In 2008, he created the nonprofit site watchdog.net, which is described as making it easier for people to find and access government data. He has also served on the board of Change Congress, a good government nonprofit, according to his website and wrote a widely known analysis of Wikipedia, “Who Writes Wikipedia?

But the political and academic underpinnings of Swartz’s actions seem to have had little impact on the officials prosecuting him.

“Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar and whether you take documents, data or dollars. It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away,” U.S. Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said.

The indictment alleges that between Sept. 24, 2010 and Jan. 6, Swartz broke into a restricted computer wiring closet in a basement at the institute and access its network without authorization from a computer switch inside, aiming to download a major portion of Jstor’s archive of digitized academic journal articles onto his own computers and hard drives. Jstor has invested heavily in providing an online system for archiving, accessing and searching digitized copies of more than 1,000 academic journals. It is alleged Swartz avoided MIT’s and Jstor’s security efforts to distribute a significant proportion of Jstor’s archive through one or more file-sharing sites.

The indictment alleges that Swartz’s repeated automatic downloads impaired Jstor’s computers, brought down some of its servers and deprived various computers at the institute from accessing Jstor’s research. Even after Jstor and MIT worked to block Swartz’s computers, Swartz allegedly returned with new methods for accessing Jstor and downloading articles.

But the institute no longer has an ax to grind with Swartz, according to David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress, a liberal group for which Swartz once served as executive director.

“The alleged victim has settled any claims against Aaron, explained they’ve suffered no loss or damage, and asked the government not to prosecute,” Segal said on the Demand Progress website, referring to the university.

A statement by Jstor also muddies the indictment, saying that the journal noticed Swartz’s attempts to download, “stopped this downloading activity, and the individual responsible, Mr. Swartz, was identified. We secured from Mr. Swartz the content that was taken, and received confirmation that the content was not and would not be used, copied, transferred, or distributed.”

Other sites have noticed a disconnect between the charges and the attitudes of the offended parties as well as between the accusations and severity of punishment possible if Swartz is found guilty. “It certainly looks like Aaron did some things that were questionable in how he accessed this data,” one post at expertulpc.com says after wading through material Tuesday. “But does it raise to the level of a federal indictment for criminal hacking? That seems like a huge, huge stretch.”

The Demand Progress site is asking people to spread the word about Swartz’s troubles via e-mail and social media and soliciting small donations, although not explicitly saying the money will be used for his legal defense. The page with the relevant links bears the URL “support_aaron.”

His attorney is Andrew Good, who has been involved in several high-profile technology cases, according to Talking Points Memo.

The indictment alleges that Swartz exploited the institute’s computer system to get access to more than 4 million articles from Jstor. U.S. attorneys say “Swartz was allegedly a fellow at a Boston-area university through which he could have accessed Jstor’s services and archive for legitimate research,” apparently a reference to his Harvard work, although the Harvard Crimson said he is no longer associated with the university.

The Secret Service and Cambridge and institute police officers worked with the New England Electronic Crimes Task Force on the case, said Steven D. Ricciardi, special agent in charge of the U.S. Secret Service in New England.

This post uses information from a press release.

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