The tangled tale of Aaron Swartz, the computer genius/hacker who hanged himself earlier this month in the midst of an aggressive prosecution for computer and wire fraud by local U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, got a bit more tangled yesterday.
From Monday’s New York Times:
In the early days of 2011, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology learned that it had an intruder. Worse, it believed the intruder had been there before.
Months earlier, the mysterious visitor had used the school’s computer network to begin copying millions of research articles belonging to Jstor, the nonprofit organization that sells subscription access to universities . . .
What the university officials did not know at the time was that the intruder was Aaron Swartz, one of the shining lights of the technology world and a leading advocate for open access to information, with a fellowship down the road at Harvard.
Mr. Swartz’s actions presented M.I.T. with a crucial choice: the university could try to plug the weak spot in its network or it could try to catch the hacker, then unknown.
M.I.T. chose the latter, which triggered the series of events that began with a criminal charge and ended with Swartz’s suicide.
Along the way, according to internal documents the Times has obtained, M.I.T. made decisions that inexorably led to the legal pursuit of Swartz.
For starters, there was this:
According to the [internal M.I.T.] timeline, the tech team detected brief activity from China on the netbook [that was downloading Jstor articles] — something that occurs all the time but still represents potential trouble.
And then this:
Michael Sussmann, a Washington lawyer and a former federal prosecutor of computer crime, said that . . . without more information, [M.I.T.] had to assume any hackers were “the Chinese, even though it’s a 16-year-old with acne.” Once the police were called in, the university could not back away from the investigation. “After there’s a referral, victims don’t have the opportunity to change their mind.”
Beyond that, M.I.T.’s legal team contended that “the government had compelled M.I.T. to collect and hand over the [incriminating] material.”
But Monday’s Times kissin’ cousin Boston Globe featured an op-ed from John E. Sununu that said this:
After Swartz returned the documents and apologized, JSTOR — the subscription service that was hacked — dropped a civil case against him. MIT, however, remained silent. Swartz’s family faulted the institute for failing to back him. One of his lawyers went farther, telling a Globe writer that the school had stood in the way of a plea deal that would have kept Swartz out of prison. Unfortunately, MIT still isn’t talking.
Unfortunately, neither is Aaron Swartz.