UPDATE: U.S Government submitted
to the court today (January 14, 2012)
to have the case against Swartz
dropped and
many academics
whose articles were on JSTOR
were moved to start sharing
their articles at no charge.

Aaron Swartz Hacker Case Ends With Suicide

English: Aaron Swartz at a Creative Commons event.

Aaron Swartz at a Creative Commons event. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those of us who have covered white-collar crime cases, we know that prosecutors and defense attorneys play for keeps.  In our justice system there is only one victor, one loser, one verdict … and in the middle of it all is a defendant, a person.  One of those defendants arrested and charged in 2011 was Aaron Swartz (26), who chose to end his case on his own terms … he hung himself in his Brooklyn apartment last weekend.

When Swartz was indicted in July 2011, I recalled reading about but his case and found it unworthy of blogging about here.   What turned me off?  Swartz was portrayed by prosecutors as a computer hacker who had wrongfully accessed some free documents from an on-line academic journal repository at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  My first thought was that a guy like Swartz was going to get suspended from school (I believed him to be a student).  So why would I think about writing about this case when I had insider traders scrambling around New York to find a lawyer at the time?  However, I should have paid attention, because what I forgot about in the Swartz case was that he was an innocent man until proven guilty who was charged with a crime that could have put him in prison for 35 years, 3 years of supervised release and a $1 million fine.  So what was this terrible crime that Swartz was charged with that would send him away for so long?

In a press release by the U.S. Attorney (Carmen Ortiz) in the District of Massachusetts on July 19, 2011, there was no mention of Swartz's programming skills, his genius or his contributions to society (co-developed RSS, a system of constantly updating subscription feeds, at age 14 - instrumental in creation of Reddit - a proponent of free information - etc.).   According the federal indictment, he was charged with hacking a not-for-profit organization (JSTOR) from "a restricted computer wiring closet in the basement of MIT to download millions of articles from academic journals" (many of which were available for free).  JSTOR archives academic journals and institutions, like MIT, pay an annual fee for its students and professors to use the system to download articles for research.  For some reason, Swartz, who was at the time a fellow at Harvard University's Safra Center for Ethics, felt that he needed every academic article housed on JSTOR.  There was no evidence ever presented as to what, if anything, Swartz planned to do with the data (sell it or give it away) … all we know is that he downloaded it … but, his plot, if there was one, did not go far.  He was found out in early 2011, the documents turned back over to JSTOR who was satisfied that justice had been done.  JSTOR issued a statement about Swartz over the weekend stating:

    "Aaron returned the data he had in his possession and JSTOR settled any civil claims we might have had against him in June 2011."

However, the full force of the U.S. government was not satisfied and an investigation involving the Secret Service, the U.S. Attorney's Cybercrime Unit and the Cambridge Police Department ensued … as did a lengthy court battle which was to conclude with a trial in 2013.  A review of the legal docket for Swartz's case on Pacer shows that there was much legal wrangling over evidence, the merit of the case and the severe penalties sought by the government for an infraction that the computer world considered innocuous.  Alex Stamos, who was to be an expert witness for Swartz, wrote a blog about the case:

    "… what Aaron did [allegedly 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 1o1 paper.  It is inconsiderate to download lots of files on shared wifi …. 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 government saw it differently.  Swartz was a hacker, who, according to the indictment:

    "contrived to break into a restricted wiring closet at MIT" (a closet where a homeless man was also reported as storing his belongings - no charges against him yet)"

    "contrived to elude detection and identification" (Swartz hid his face with a bike helmet near a closed circuit camera upon entering an MIT building

    "contrived to avoid MIT's and JSTOR's efforts to prevent massive copying" (MIT admitted that there were no real barriers to prevent the downloading Swartz was accused of)

    Swartz used a fictitious email address, "ghost@mailinator.com", in the course of his actions (damning, but hardly relevant)

The government had its case and they were pushing it hard.  People who know our federal justice system, which sadly is not the majority of our country, realize that when an indictment is entered against a person that the prison time, in this case 35 years, is simply puffery to let the general public know 'We mean business'.  The defendant who hears this thinks, "My life is over."

Swartz was known to battle depression, so an indictment did not help his mental state as it often rattles even those who have no such malady.  One of the conditions of his unsecured bond approved by a judge was that he "undergo medical or psychiatric treatment," so the court must have been aware that there was a mental issue … but the case must go on.  While Swartz suffered with his depression, he was briefed by lawyers to keep him abreast of the case that could land him in prison, in his mind, for decades.  While some may speculate that Swartz had other mental issues that contributed to his suicide, I think it's fair to say that his pending trial weighed heavily on him.  You will have to just take my word on that one.

On the eve of Swartz's death, prosecutors and his defense team submitted court documents arguing about a recently discovered (on December 14, 2012) email dated January 7, 2011 that the prosecution had "come across while collecting supplemental discovery materials."  The email contained information which Swartz's attorney, Elliot R. Peters, believed should have warranted the judge to throw the case out because of a mishandling/seizure of evidence (computer and computer related equipment).  While those briefs were being submitted and argued, Swartz acted on his own strategy to conclude his case.

Sadly, I never covered Aaron Swartz's case because I, like so many other bloggers and journalists, simply chose to look at a criminal indictment and see whether the case was worthy of our reader's attention.  I never knew Swartz or his contributions, nor can you find those in any prosecutor's indictment.  In fact, for any defendant, the only time we are introduced to who they are and what they have accomplished in life is contained in a Sentencing Memorandum which is submitted after a guilty verdict (plea) and just before a judge pronounces a prison sentence.  Well, I guess there is one other place you can read about someone's contributions to society … in an obituary.

What the prosecutors in this case underestimated was that Aaron Swartz played for keeps too and found a way to leave this world as an innocent man … but what a price.
Academics concealing research
Academics Concealing Research
Aaron Schwartz (public domain photo from Wikipedia)
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See court filing