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<nettime> Losing Aaron
Eduardo on Fri, 10 Jan 2014 13:02:15 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Losing Aaron

Losing Aaron

After his son was arrested for downloading files at MIT, Bob Swartz did everything in his power to save him. He couldnât. Now he wants the institute to own up to its part in Aaronâs death.

By Janelle Nanos | Boston Magazine |

There was a point, during the two years of legal proceedings that would overtake, and then shatter, both of their lives, when Bob Swartz and his son Aaron found themselves with a bit of free time. They had arrived at the Federal Reserve building, in Boston, to meet Aaronâs lawyerâone of dozens of meetings Bob would arrange in hopes of fending off the 13 felony counts against his son. But they were early, so they took a walk.
Aaron was Bobâs first child, the oldest of three boys, and he was a fragile, thoughtful kid from the very beginning. Growing up, Aaron and his brothers, Noah and Ben, had unfettered access to the nascent Internet, creating and coding projects of their own design. Evenings were spent building robots with Legos, playing Myst or Magic: The Gathering. Dinner-table conversations might concern the merits of a particular font, or Edward Tufteâs theories of information. âIt was a house of ideas,â Bob says.
Aaron taught himself to read at age three, and became bored with school shortly thereafter. By ninth grade he became an anti-school activist, arguing that rote drills and homework assignments couldnât teach kids how to think. Instead, he chose to be âunschooled,â documenting his progress on a blog he called Schoolyard Subversion. âHe lived more of his life online than he did with his friends,â Bob says. âThere was a degree of alienation that occurred, especially as he got older. He was working on the Internet and that was sort of terra incognita.â But Aaron found a network of friends onlineâmany far older than heâwho shared his interest in the future of the Web. Bob understood his dark-eyed, curious sonâs enthusiasms. They spent time together in their Highland Park home, bonding over books as Aaron mowed through the familyâs canon. One summer, they cataloged several thousand of their books according to the Library of Congress classification system. One night a fight erupted over standards. Aaron won.
Another time, Bob took Aaron to the Crerar Library at the University of Chicago, just as his own father had once taken him. Bob led Aaron through the stacks, pulled a book off the shelf, and cradled it in his hands. It was from the 1800s, a marvel. He told his son libraries were portals into the knowledge of the world.
Whenever Aaron needed advice, his father would share an insight from life or literature. âYou always answer things in stories,â Aaron would say. That afternoon, as Bob and Aaron circled the block, they discussed the events of the past few monthsâAaronâs arrest, when he was forced to the pavement; his strip search and solitary confinement upon arraignment; the increasingly circuitous route the U.S. Attorneyâs Office was taking in negotiating the charges; their legal fees, which would soon clear $1 million; the looming felony conviction that Aaron feared. Aaron said he felt as though heâd been living in a version of The Trial, Kafkaâs classic novel, which follows the incoherent prosecution of a defendant named Josef K.
Aaron had read the story in 2011, shortly after his arrest, and called it âdeep and magnificentâ on his blog. âIâd not really read much Kafka before and had grown up led to believe that it was a paranoid and hyperbolic work,â he wrote. Instead, heâd found it âprecisely accurateâevery single detail perfectly mirrored my own experience. This isnât fiction, but documentary.â
Bob had admired Kafka, but didnât remember the plot of The Trial. He asked Aaron to remind him how the story ended.
Aaron just stared at him.
âThey killed K., Dad,â Aaron told him. âThey killed him.â
Just a few months later, on January 11, 2013, nearly two years from the date when he was first arrested by a Secret Service agent in Central Square, Aaron Swartz hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment. He was 26 years old.
MIT may be the worldâs most prestigious engineering school, with touchscreen maps installed in its building lobbies, but it remains a remarkably difficult place to navigate. To find room 485 in the Media Lab building, you pass through a series of silver double doors, then skirt a workshop where a garden of mechanical flowers gleam purple and silver under iridescent lights. There are no bumper stickers or flyers taped to the hall window of room 485; the blinds are closed. The only sign itâs occupied at all is the magnetic poetry on the door. Most of the tiles are a random scramble, but nine have been arranged to form the lines: Construct the future to be better for your children.
Bob Swartz is inside.
Bob has kind brown eyes and a brow crowned with gray fuzz. He wears a striped button-down shirt, khakis, a brown belt, a Tag Heuer watch with a simple brown leather strap, and sensible shoes. He swivels in his chair with one leg tucked underneath him. The room is small, only about 10 by 14 feet, but there are seven office chairs. âThis is where the chairs hang out,â he jokes. There is weariness in his voice. âI feel bad putting them out in the hall.â
Bob lives in Highland Park, Illinois. For more than a decade, he has traveled to the MIT campus each month to consult on intellectual-property aspects of Media Lab creations. After Aaronâs arrest, these trips took on a new urgency: He had to file motions, meet with attorneys, plead with MIT administrators. Now, in the wake of his sonâs death, coming here has become an exercise in grief.
âI see Aaron on every corner,â he says. âI pass by the building. I see MIT police. I remember, I remember himââ he sighs. âWe spent a lot of time here. There are all sorts of painful aspects of what happened. They come back.â
aaron swartz boston

Aaron Swartz at the Boston Wiki Meetup in 2009. (Photo by Sage Ross on Flickr)

In January 2011, just a few blocks from where Bob sits, Aaron was arrested for downloading 4 million copyrighted articles from JSTOR, an online archive of academic journals (JSTOR stands for Journal Storage). JSTOR charges libraries as much as $50,000 in yearly subscription fees to access its archive, but at the time, MITâs open-network policy meant any visitor to campus could take advantage of MITâs subscription privileges by using a guest login. Even so, Aaron was charged with excessive and unauthorized access to the universityâs network under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).
United States Attorney Carmen Ortiz, in the midst of a prosecutorial tear that would lead the Globe to name her 2011âs Bostonian of the Year, held up Aaronâs indictment as a warning to hackers everywhere: âStealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data, or dollars,â she said at the time. âIt is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away.â
In fact, Aaron faced stiffer maximum penalties than if he had used a crowbar: 35 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million. âI said to him, âIâll use every sinew in my body and every synapse in my brain to get you out of this mess,ââ Bob says.
Bob pleaded with MITâs administrators and lawyers to intervene. Joi Ito, the Media Labâs director, also petitioned the university to consider it a âfamily matterâ and speak up regarding the charges of Aaron having âunauthorized accessâ on a campus where anyone, anywhere, could log into the JSTOR systemâor any library databaseâwith a simple Ethernet connection. But instead, MIT took a position of âneutrality.â It made no public statements for or against Aaronâs prosecution or about whether he should be imprisoned. This is the other reason why Bobâs visits to MIT are so painful: He canât walk through campus without feeling that MIT betrayed his son.
âI always felt that MIT would act in a reasonable and compassionate way and that MIT wasnât the issue,â Bob says. âI didnât understand the depths of what MIT had done at that point.â
Bob has developed a routine during his Cambridge visits. He rooms at the Kendall Hotel. In the evenings, heâll stroll to Emmaâs for a pizza, or visit the Coop bookshop in Harvard Square. Some days he eats at Legal Sea Foods, where he often overhears drug developers debating the risk of funding new research. This bothers him. He believes people should be willing to take risks, to try and to fail, and that through failure comes change and invention.
âIt all came from my father,â Bob says.
Bobâs father, William Swartz, was a successful Chicago businessman who parlayed his wealth into social activism. He founded the Albert Einstein Peace Prize Foundation, and was active with Pugwash, the nuclear disarmament group that won the Nobel Prize when Aaron was eight. Through Pugwash, William befriended Jerome âJerryâ Wiesner, the 13th president of MIT and a cofounder of the Media Lab. When Bob was a teenager, his father would send him to pick up Wiesner at the airport when he came to town. âJerry had an incredible heart about things and was just an extraordinary human being,â Bob says. In his memories, Wiesner embodied all that MIT stood for: compassion and creativity, challenging authority, and pure scientific inquiry.
Bob was never accepted to MITâhis dyslexia led to mediocre grades in high schoolâbut he convinced the university to let him complete some undergrad and graduate work there as a special student in the math department. He arrived just as MIT was beginning to embrace, and celebrate, its hacker ethos. At MIT, a hack can mean benignly breaking into a computer system, but it can also mean breaking into the universityâs underground network of tunnels, inflating MIT balloons during the Harvard-Yale game, or measuring bridges in Smoots.
âHacking was investigating a subject for its own sake and not for academic advancement, exploring inaccessible places on campus, doing something clandestine or out of the ordinary, or performing pranks,â wrote Brian Leibowitz, editor of The Journal of the Institute for Hacks, TomFoolery, and Pranks at MIT. What started as a series of stunts evolved into elegant acts of cunning that have come to define the institutionâs values. âHackers believe that essential lessons can be learned about the systemsâabout the worldâfrom taking things apart, seeing how they work, and using this knowledge to create new and even more interesting things,â Steven Levy writes in Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. âThey resent any person, physical barrier, or law that tries to keep them from doing this.â
Bobâs eyes brighten when heâs asked about his own history of hacks. He says nothing, but just offers a sly grin; itâs the same smile he passed along to his son.
In time, Bob took over his fatherâs business and adapted it into a software company. He married and raised three boys of his own, who picked up his penchant for computing. âBefore the World Wide Web existed, we were using the Internet,â Bob says. âWe all understood very early on that the Internet was going to change everything.â
Aaron began to teach himself simple computer programs while still in elementary school. When he was 12, he accompanied Bob to MIT and sat in on Philip Greenspunâs Web-development class. âI was so excited by the class that I immediately went home and tried to make something,â Aaron wrote to a friend years later.
Even then, Aaron saw the Web as a platform for freely sharing. A year before Wikipedia launched, he built an open-source encyclopedia, which he submitted to Greenspunâs ArsDigita contest for teen programmers. As a finalist, he met the inventor of the Web, MIT professor Tim Berners-Lee. He followed that up by coauthoring some of the first codes for RSS feeds, at age 14; working on the frameworks for Creative Commons with famed Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig, at 15; and helping to build the website Reddit, the sale of which made him a millionaire a week before his 20th birthday.
Like his father, Aaron was never an MIT studentâhe had done a brief stint at Stanford, but found it intellectually lacking. Instead, he worked with Lessig as a Safra fellow in Harvardâs Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and began to focus on the political potential of his coding skills. He cofounded Demand Progress, an activist group that railed against Internet censorship. He juggled projects on open access, rethinking copyright restrictions, and ending corporate corruption, and had coauthored a Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, which argued that public access to scholarly journals was a moral imperative. Aaron approached every stage in his life with an unbridled idealism. Whenever he grew frustrated or disappointed, Bob always encouraged him to learn from failure. Aaronâs goal, he says, was simply to âmake the world better.â
Aaron lived in Central Square, moving fluidly between Harvard and MITâs campus. At MIT, he visited friends and family, including his brothers, who interned at the Media Lab. Aaronâs girlfriend at the time, Quinn Norton, described his familiarity with MIT: Aaron âhad a history of hacking,â she said in an interview with MIT after his death. Sometimes when sheâd call him heâd tell her, âCanât talk now, in the middle of breaking into a building at MIT with a bunch of students.â
âIt was a fun place where he could do that,â she said. âAnd I think he did it at MIT because it was in the spirit of the things that he did, and other people he knew did, at MIT.â
Norton told MIT that Aaron was in the habit of gathering big data sets, and that sheâd helped him scrape millions of books in the public domain from Google Books: âIt was a game. He was a data pack ratâHe really loved mashing them with scripts and going through and analyzing them and trying to pull stuff out of them.â I think that he somewhat reasonably thought that if MIT didnât like it theyâd just tell him to stop.â
bob swartz mit

As an adviser to MITâs Media Lab, Bob Swartz visits campus every month. âI see Aaron on every corner,â he says. (Photograph by Mark Fleming)

Aaron was a child of the Internet, and as news of his suicide began to filter online, the Web heaved in mourning. Berners-Lee took to Twitter: âAaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.â Larry Lessig ended his online requiem with âI will always love you, sweet boy. Please find the peace you were seeking. And if you do, please find a way to share that too.â
The Swartz family released a more pointed statement. âAaronâs death is not simply a personal tragedy,â it read. âDecisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorneyâs office and at MIT contributed to his deathâ. MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own communityâs most cherished principles.â At Aaronâs funeral, Bob was even more raw. âAaron did not commit suicide but was killed by the government,â he said, making headlines worldwide, adding, âWe tried and tried to get MIT to help and show compassionâ[but] their institutional concerns were more important.â
In March, Bob made his way back to campus for Aaronâs memorial service. He wrote the words he would speak that day in his office in the Media Lab building. Dressed in a dark-gray suit, he stood at the podium and cited the work of other digital visionaries who flouted the law: Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and the founder of Polaroid, Edwin Land. âThese people did exactly what MIT told them to do, they colored outside the linesâbut todayâs MIT destroys those kinds of people,â he said.
Now itâs summer, and the August sunlight filters in through his office window. Back in January, MIT asked professor Hal Abelson, a leader in the open-access movement, to lead an investigation into MITâs role in Aaronâs death, and this is the first time Bob has been on campus since the reportâs release a few days earlier. Abelson interviewed dozens of people: Aaronâs friends and family, law enforcement officials, Aaronâs attorneys, MITâs attorneys, and two sets of administrative officials at MIT (Susan Hockfieldâs departure as president would lead to an administrative overhaul and a do-si-do of new appointments). The universityâs administrators had held off his requests for meetings until it was completed, but just yesterday, heâd been able to sit down with MITâs president, L. Rafael Reif, for nearly an hour. He was heartened to see a portrait of Jerry Wiesner over Reifâs desk. He told the president that the questions associated with Aaronâs death go to the soul of MIT. âThere was a complete lack of compassion in the way that they handled the case,â he says now. âAnd that is the tragedy. And to the extent that that doesnât change, MIT will have completely lost its way.â
It was supposed to be the work of a ghost. In late 2010, after creating the fake user profile Gary Hostâshortened to âghostâ on the email loginâAaron began downloading files from JSTOR. Sometime in November, he left a laptop hidden in a basement utility closet in MITâs Building 16, where it could conceivably continue to download for days without notice.
When JSTOR noticed the bulk downloads, it blocked the ghost email address, and notified MIT. But the downloading continued, and JSTOR locked MIT out of its archives. On January 4, 2011, campus police found the laptop in the closet and called Cambridge police. The detective who took the call was also a member of the New England Electronic Crimes Task Force, which includes representatives from the U.S. Secret Service. In short time, a host of officers descended on campus. They were unsure of what exactly was under way, but they suspected an international breach: When the Secret Service arrived, Bob says, the first thing they asked was whether any of the universityâs classified research was threatened.
Officers placed a video camera in the closet, while the Secret Service agent on the case, Michael Pickett, asked the schoolâs Information Services & Technology staff for relevant electronic records. Without a subpoena, attorneys in MITâs Office of the General Counsel released the materials to Pickett.
The suspect returned to the closet later that afternoon, but when MIT police arrived he was gone. Only the camera saw him: a lean young man with dark, shoulder-length wavy hair, wearing a dark coat, a gray backpack, and jeans, and carrying a white bike helmet. Two days later, after those images had been distributed to MIT police, campus officers were alerted that someone had entered the closet yet again. They watched via video feed as their suspect removed the laptop, this time with a bike helmet obscuring his face. Later that day, MIT police captain Albert Pierce spotted a young man who resembled the suspect biking through campus on Vassar Street.
Pierce followed the suspect north on Mass. Ave. through Central Square, eventually overtaking him just past the intersection. He called for backup, and another MIT officer and Special Agent Pickett quickly responded. Pierce pulled up alongside the cyclist, showing him his badge and ID. The suspect said he didnât talk to strangers and that Pierce wasnât a âreal cop,â then ditched his bicycle, taking off toward Central Square. Pierce tried to chase him on foot, but returned to his car. By then, the other officers had arrived, and the two cars followed the suspect onto Lee Street.
Aaron Swartz was apprehended on a quiet block about a mile from MITâs campus, in front of a row of stately three-story townhomes. Special Agent Pickett put him in handcuffs. He was charged with breaking and entering in the daytime and with intent to commit a felony. He was just a few blocks from home.
Bob was walking off a plane in San Francisco when his wife, Susan, called him with the news: âAaron has been arrested at MIT.â Bob called Aaron immediately. He said heâd been roughed up, that officers took his bike, backpack, and laptop. âHe sounded scared,â Bob remembers.
Bob was alarmed, but this wasnât Aaronâs first brush with the law. Four years earlier, the FBI had investigated Aaron for a bulk download of the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) website, a government-run court archive. The open-government activist Carl Malamud believed that public documents should be free to the public, and encouraged activists to liberate the files through a free trial PACER was offering libraries. Aaron told Malamud that heâd written a script that could make downloads outside the library network, but Malamud told him to stick to the appropriate channels. Aaron went ahead and used his script anyway, downloading some 2.7 million files.
That time, Aaron warned his parents the FBI might pay them a visit. Bob and Susan were upset, but tried not to show it. âI wanted him to understand that he had our support,â Bob says. âIt didnât seem to us that screaming and yelling at him was productive, so we didnât.â
The FBI and the Department of Justice did send a surveillance team to the Swartz home, but never brought charges. Malamud and Aaron had not broken any laws, and besides, their mass downloads exposed glaring privacy gaps where the government had failed to redact Social Security numbers, names of informants, and other problematic information from the files. As Bob recalls, âIt kind of came and went.â
This time felt different. A few weeks after his arrest, law enforcement told Aaron he could come pick up the possessions they had confiscated. Aaron called Bob: âDad, will you come with me to pick up my bike?â he asked.
âOf course,â Bob said.
Bob and Aaron walked to the Vassar Street headquarters of the MIT police. As they sat in the station, looking through bullet-proof glass, âIt was like, what are we doing here?â Bob remembers. Aaron was miserable and depressed. The MIT cops returned his helmet, backpack, and bicycle, but kept a USB drive that he had used for the downloads. âNow itâs up to the Secret Service,â Bob remembers the cop saying.
âThe two of us looked at each other and said, âThis is a lot more serious than we thought.ââ
In open-access corners of the Internet, Aaronâs fellow hackers still search for an answer: What had he planned to do with the downloaded files? Most acts of civil disobedience are done publicly, without ghost logins or hidden laptops. Aaron could have done his downloading in the open: MITâs open-network policies at the time allowed anyone visiting campus to access services like JSTOR. That openness, coupled with the universityâs celebrated history of hacker culture, could have led Aaron to think heâd be more likely to be chastised than indicted. But it doesnât explain why he resorted to clandestine maneuvers.
Only Lessig, who for a short time served as Aaronâs lawyer, has said he knows for certain what Aaronâs plan was. But heâs not sharing. Instead, he has dropped coy hints. In a lecture at Harvard shortly after Aaronâs death, he floated possible scenarios. In one, Aaron was planning to release the files to third-world countries. Another theory: He planned to analyze the data to search for evidence of corrupt science, just as he had done with a legal database under Lessigâs guidance at Stanford.
To Bob, the latter explanation seems more likely. âThere was one conversation we had where he indicated that the goal of these documents was to do a meta analysis of them,â Bob says. âHe described, similarly, looking at funding associated with the documents.â
But the reasons didnât matter in the end, he says. He knows they hardly mattered to the prosecution.
The real question is this: Did Aaron know, that fall, the danger he was putting himself in?

Aaron Swartz in May 2004, age 17. (Photo Provided by Bob Swartz)

âThere was no question in my mind he understood how this had gone terribly awry, and he was very upset about it,â Bob says. âWe didnât need to have those conversations as to why he did it, or what was going through his head, because that wasnât the question.â
Thereâs a story he told Aaron then, just after the arrest. âLook at my hand,â he said to his son, pointing to a scar in the webbing between his index and middle fingers. âWhen I was a student, I was working in the darkroom at New College, and I was putting a rubber stopper into a glass tube. And every time I put in the rubber stopper the glass tube shattered, and I said to myself, You know, Iâm going to put that glass tube through my hand, but I persisted, and I put that glass tube through my hand. And I went to Sarasota Memorial Hospital and the doctor there was not the best and he sewed back my finger and he left that web in my hand. Because I should have stoppedâI knew.â
Stephen Heymann, the lead attorney on Aaronâs case, is known for his steadfast, inflexible approach to his prosecutions. He comes from a distinguished legal background: His father, Philip Heymann, is a Harvard Law professor who worked as a Watergate prosecutor. Philip Heymann also served as deputy attorney general in the Clinton White House, where he befriended Ortiz and Eric Holder, who would later become attorney general.
The younger Heymann has made a name for himself pioneering the prosecution of computer crimes within the U.S. Attorneyâs Office in Massachusetts. For nearly three decades, he has defended the laws outlined by the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and as the chief of the Cybercrime Unit within the U.S. Attorneyâs Office, he oversaw the first court-authorized electronic surveillance of a computer network. In 2000 he worked on the case against Jonathan James, a 16-year-old who had breached NASAâs network. James became the first juvenile sent to a prison for hacking crimes.
The CFAA was Congressâs hysterical reaction to WarGames, the 1983 film in which a teenage Matthew Broderick hacks into NORADâs nuclear arsenal. The aim was to protect U.S. bank and defense computers from international cyber threats, but as the Internet has evolved over the past three decades, so has the CFAA. The Justice Department has extended its scope and now uses it to bring charges for a wide range of online infractions, some as trivial as lying on oneâs MySpace page.
Heymannâs work to enforce the CFAA has also helped to shape it. In 1994 he led the prosecution of MIT student David LaMacchia, who was charged with using the universityâs networks to copy $1 million worth of software, which he then posted online for others to use. Like Swartz, LaMacchia faced jail time and felony charges. Unlike Swartz, his case was thrown out by a judge, who deemed his actions âheedlessly irresponsibleâ but let LaMacchia off because he showed no intent to profit from his actions.
In legal circles, this Robin Hood approach to software distribution became known as the LaMacchia Loophole. In 1997 Congress passed a law that strengthened criminal punishment for copyright infringement, even if the owner did not intend to make a profit. The measure was an early predecessor to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) legislation that was floated in Congress in 2011âlegislation that Aaron campaigned against, and which was eventually quashed.
For Bob and Aaron, Heymann was the face of the state. Aaronâs attorneys approached Heymann shortly after Aaronâs arrest, asking him to drop the charges. The meetings did not go well; Heymann refused to accept a settlement that did not involve jail time. At an impasse with Heymann, Bob and Aaron approached JSTOR. The company was much more open to negotiation, and in June 2011, the sides reached a civil settlement. Aaron paid a $26,500 fine. A spokesman said JSTOR considered the case closed: âWe [have] no interest in this becoming an ongoing legal matter.â
Nonetheless, the criminal case slouched forward undeterred. As Aaronâs indictment neared, Heymann offered him a plea deal: If he agreed to one felony count, he could get three months in jail, followed by a period of probation and time in a halfway house.
Negotiations continued, but in the end Aaron told Heymann no. He would fight the felony charges and go to trial.
Later, Heymann would tell MIT that he was âdumbfoundedâ by Aaronâs decision, and claimed that Aaron was âsystematically re-victimizingâ the university by choosing to go through proceedings. Publicly criticizing MIT at a trial, Heymann said, was akin to âattacking a rape victim based on sleeping with other men.â
In the ensuing months, Aaron was banned from the Harvard and MIT campuses. Secret Service agents tore apart his apartment. Heymann subpoenaed Aaronâs girlfriend, Quinn Norton, to give grand jury testimony. That was bad enough, but even before the jury convened, Norton agreed to meet with Heymannâagainst Aaronâs pleas. Norton would say later that she thought she could talk Heymann into dropping the prosecution. Instead, he grilled her until he had what he needed: Norton mentioned that Aaron had coauthored the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto (remarkably, the prosecution had failed to read through the blog posts of the Internet activist they had intended to charge). For Heymann, this was a key piece of evidence: It established a motive.
Aaron was devastated. If Norton hadnât met with Heymann, he believed, the prosecutor might never have found the manifesto for himself. He was furious. And more, Norton would tell an MIT investigator later, he was terrified âthat anyone that talked to him would be treated like I was, so he didnât talk to anyoneâ. I considered myself radioactive, he considered both of us radioactiveâanyone we talked to could suddenly be pulled into this nightmare.â
Bob believes that Nortonâs cooperation with the prosecutors was a betrayal that left Aaron bereft. The coupleâs relationship dissolved shortly thereafter.
A few days before the indictment, Aaronâs attorney called the U.S. Attorneyâs Office and agreed that Aaron would voluntarily surrender. But Bob says the prosecutors insisted on arresting him: âThey strip-searched him. They took away his shoelaces. They put him in solitary confinement and left him there. They brought him out in handcuffs. And then, after his bond was posted, they left him in a cell for a couple of hours, with no explanation. It was just sadistic.â
The U.S. Attorneyâs Office holds that it did not take the previous FBI investigation into account when it made the decision to prosecute Aaron, but Aaronâs activist ties did seem to strike a chord. On the day of his indictment, Aaron sent 11 tweets, many of which linked to an article on the Demand Progress site that shared details of his case. This âwild Internet campaignâ was a âfoolishâ move that shifted the case âfrom a human one-on-one level to an institutional level,â Heymann would say later.
Aaron was charged with wire fraud, computer fraud, and âunlawfully obtaining information fromâ and ârecklessly damagingâ a âprotected computer.â There would be 13 felony counts in all. At the time of the indictment, the U.S. Attorneyâs Office said he could face 35 years in prison.
Aaron had ulcerative colitis, and his family feared that his health would deteriorate if he went to prison. He was growing increasingly depressed. âThe endless plea negotiations, discussions of jail, what jail to go to, what the halfway house was going to be likeâthey were torture,â Bob says. âThey were torture for me but far more torture for Aaron. He couldnât deal. I dealt with the legal aspects of the case because it was very hard for him to do that. And, you know, it destroyed his feelings of security.â
In an interview in December, Carmen Ortizâs first assistant attorney, Jack Pirozzolo, spoke with me about the case. âSteve [Heymann] is a cautious, careful prosecutorâ. He has taken the tragedy of Mr. Swartzâs suicide very hard. We as prosecutors have a job to do. We follow the evidence wherever it leads and recommend charges based on the evidence and the applicable law. In this case, the evidence of criminal conduct led to Mr. Swartz, and I donât think there can be much debate about that,â he told me. He holds that the rule of law must be applied regardless of someoneâs talents, stature, or political beliefs. âAs far as I am aware, Congress hasnât told us that there is a certain set of rules for MIT students and another set for everyone elseâ. A personâs affiliation with MIT or Harvard does not bestow immunity from the consequences of breaking the lawâ. Mr. Swartz was obviously a talented guy, but our system canât work if we apply a set of rules to one group of people and not another because we approve of their talents. There is, in some sense, a breathtaking double standard thatâs being applied here.â
To Bob, Heymannâs actions went beyond the duties of a prosecutor.
âHe clearly doesnât have a sense of what heâs doing to people,â Bob says of Heymann. âAnd this isnât the first time.â
The pressure that Aaron was under was not unique. In 2008, Jonathan James, the juvenile hacker Heymann had convicted in 2000 at the age of 16, found himself again under suspicion. At the time, Heymann was leading an investigation into the largest identity-theft ring in U.S. history, and James was implicated. He was never charged, but Secret Service agents ransacked his home and put a tracking device on his car.
On May 18 of that year, he was found dead in his home from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. In his suicide note, he wrote that heâd become convinced that he would be scapegoated as a key member of the hacker ring because of his past conviction. âThe feds play dirty,â he wrote.
The relationship between Heymann and MIT was complicated, and only came to light much later.
Abelsonâs 182-page report, released in July, provides a remarkable glimpse of a university wrestling with its public persona. And while the report would ultimately find that MIT was justified in its neutral stance, the university often appears incurious and callous in its pages.
For example: Just days after JSTOR first noticed Aaronâs bulk download and notified MIT, an MIT Information Systems & Technology staffer wrote an email explaining that the university did not require user authentication to access JSTOR. Yet the bulk of the allegations against Aaron dealt with him âexceeding authorized accessâ to the MIT network under the CFAA. âAt no time, either before or after the arrest of Aaron Swartz, did anyone from the prosecution inquire as to whether Aaron Swartz had authorized access to the MIT network,â Abelson wrote. When it came to the most fundamental question in the caseâwas Aaron authorized to access MITâs network or not?âMIT maintains that the feds simply never asked.
And MIT never spoke up.
MIT has maintained that its policy in Aaronâs case was to remain neutralâwhich in practice meant, âdo nothing.â This was not without precedent. MIT had taken a similar stance when its students had tangled with law enforcement, and Aaron was not even a student.
Bob maintains that in Aaronâs case, MITâs âneutralityâ was in fact an abdication. By its silence, Bob says, the administration betrayed its mission. MIT has consistently sold itself as a leader on open access to scholarshipâits professors create and share curricula over OpenCourseWare, and in 2009, they voted to make all of their scholarly articles available on the Web. Even as Heymann pursued Aaron for downloading millions of journal articles on MITâs campus, the university was touting the launch of MITx, a program that would provide free online courses to millions of students around the world.
While claiming neutrality, MITâs ISâ&âT employees initially handed over many records to Heymann without a subpoena. Even later, Heymann and the Secret Service were permitted to call or email any staffer at will, an unusual privilege. In those exchanges, MIT staffers, either wittingly or unwittingly, helped Heymann build his case. What MIT describes as neutrality looks to Bob an awful lot like complicity with the prosecution. Abelson seemed to agree, writing that MITâs dispassionate approach, in fact, âwas not neutral in outcomes.â
Another key question in the prosecutionâs case was determining damages. MIT staff tallied up more than $5,000 worth of man-hours lost and âout-of-pocket costs,â bumping the allegations into felony territory. But Abelson found that MIT padded the number: By his calculations, the universityâs only expenses were the cost of installing the video camera and making photocopies for the prosecution.
More examples of MITâs complicity turned up in files that Aaronâs defense team obtained from the feds during discovery. When the Secret Service had trouble accessing Aaronâs computer, it contacted MIT for help, emails show. The ISâ&âT staff helpfully explained how to hack into it. Then thereâs the chummy note from an ISâ&âT security analyst who had worked closely with the Secret Service. On the day Aaron was indicted, the analyst emailed Heymann: âNicely done Steve and kudos! âitâs just a true relief and very refreshing to see your accuracy and precision.â
âThey call this neutrality,â Bob says.
Abelsonâs report also chronicles Bobâs ordeal. From the time of the indictment through the end of 2011, Abelson found, Bob tried to persuade MIT to change its stance. He tried, and failed, to get Aaron an appointment at the Media Lab, in the hopes that it would garner him university support. Aaronâs attorneys reached out to MIT to attempt to reach a settlement, but MIT rebuffed them. Bob pleaded: âWhy are you destroying my son?â
In fall of 2011, Bobâs wife, Susan Swartz, fell severely ill. Bob pulled back from the legal proceedings to focus on tending to her, and Aaron changed lawyers. In spring of 2012, Aaronâs new attorneys tried in vain to schedule an appointment with MIT to discuss a plea initiative. Twelve calls went unanswered from May through September.
In September 2012, Bob again asked MIT to publicly state that it did not want jail time for Aaron. It refused. The universityâs general counsel told Abelson they believed publicly backing Aaron would actually hurt his case.
Tensions at MIT heightened in October after Aaronâs lawyers filed a motion alleging the university was âacting in concertâ with the prosecution, violating federal law and Aaronâs Fourth Amendment rights protecting him from unreasonable search and seizure. The motion sought to suppress the indictment and all information gathered during the investigation. MIT was afraid its employees might have to defend themselves on the stand, which Abelson concluded served to further align the universityâs interests with the prosecution.
In the dwindling months of 2012, as both sides began to prep for hearings and it became increasingly apparent that Aaronâs case would go to trial, squabbles over documents erupted. MIT continued to provide materials to Heymannâs office under subpoena, but Heymann was not sharing them with the defense; when Aaronâs lawyers asked MIT to send copies of the same documents, MITâs counsel referred them to the U.S. Attorneyâs Office. Bob soon came to believe that Heymann had never anticipated that the case would see a courtroom. The attorneys exchanged barbs over judicial misconduct.
These debates were still very much in play when the attorneys from all parties were notified that Aaron had taken his own life.
âI feel like I could put a brick through a window,â Bob says in late October as he shuffles down Ames Street in Kendall Square. He left his overcoat back in the Media Lab building, and the wind is piercing his thin jacket. Bob is frustrated. The government is shut down, meaning his efforts to enact âAaronâs Law,â federal legislation that would reform the CFAA, have been stymied. Bob wants to publish the discovery documents the prosecution gathered while making its case, but MIT has been dragging its feet, quibbling over redactions. And heâs found that itâs been harder to change the university than he had hoped.
When the Abelson report was released, President Reif promised a series of forums that would be held throughout the fall. The first one wasnât scheduled until December, nearly a year after Aaronâs death. âMIT has dedicated thousands of hours to understanding what happened and to thinking about where we go from here,â says university spokesperson Nathaniel Nickerson, explaining the delay. In the absence of school-sponsored meetings, students have been talking about Aaronâs ordeal in small circles, if they feel comfortable talking about it at all.
Students and faculty in and around the Media Lab have said that what happened to Aaron has led to a chilling effect. If it could happen to him, it could happen to any of them. Theyâve been reluctant to share their thoughts on official MIT online forums, which require a university sign-in. âIâve had people ask me to post for them,â says Nathan Matias, a graduate student at the Media Lab. âTheyâve told me that they fear repercussions.â
The Abelson report stated that MITâs decision makers had ignored the charges against Aaron until a year after the indictment, and never âform[ed] an opinion about their merits.â The report also chastised students and faculty for not bringing concerns about the case to the administration before Aaronâs suicide. The implication that too few students and faculty stepped forward to support Aaron infuriates some of his supporters. âAny time somebody is in jeopardy or puts the university in any sort of risk, theyâre thrown under the bus,â says Willow Brugh, a Media Lab research affiliate. âWhy would anyone possibly speak up against an issue like this?â Itâs absolute bullshit. In order to have academic integrity, you need to have to a safe space for people to dissent.â
Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the Media Labâs Center for Civic Media, says the Abelson report also raises questions about the universityâs hacker culture. âMIT has long prided itself on creating a space for experimentation, including experimentation that involves bending or breaking rules,â Zuckerman says. âThis is a university thatâs internationally known for student pranks like putting a police car on the dome. One of the first questions, I think, is: Does this only apply when youâre having fun? Or does this apply when youâre engaged in politics or social change?â
âI think the worry is that the institute, which was always freewheeling, fun-loving, and impish-behavior-tolerating, is becoming captive to a set of lawyerly and administrative dictates,â says computer science professor and former Harvard dean Harry Lewis, who taught both Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. âUniversities are much more beholden to officials in the federal government, state, and local government, to stay on their good side. But thereâs something lost when the lawyers and the people who have to make the business of the university run get to influence decisions that have real educational and philosophical and student-life-related consequences.â
The Abelson report addresses this danger. It notes that âMIT is respected for world-class work in information technology, for promoting open access to online information, and for dealing wisely with the risks of computer abuse. The world looks to MIT to be at the forefront of these areas. Looking back on the Aaron Swartz case, the world didnât see leadership.â
Bob has become convinced that MIT chose not to leadâand instead acted in its own self interest. The university has more than $940 million in government contracts for the classified research it conducts in its Lincoln Laboratory, and its IT networks are constantly under threat from China and other hostile hackers. MITâs report says as much: âA laptop attached to the network has the potential to perform a wide range of activities, and the MIT network has access to many services and databases that are critical for MIT research and education, some that involve sensitive information and government applications.â Bob reasons that MIT chose not to cross Heymann so as not to alienate the New England Electronic Crimes Task Forceâor endanger its federal grants.
The universityâs executive vice president and treasurer, Israel Ruiz, told me that MITâs dependence on federal grants did not factor into its decision to remain neutral, and that the university will evaluate future criminal instances on campus on a case-by-case basis. âWe all know that we need to do a better job,â he told me. âUnfortunately we cannot repeat historyâweâre trying to move forward.â
Bob sighs as he trudges back to his office at the Media Lab building. The wind shifts and pushes a handful of brittle leaves in his path. He crushes them under his feet. âWe couldnât change things,â he says.
âAaron had all these resources. He was bright, he had a very competent legal counsel, he had money, he had a family that supported him, and he was destroyed by the legal system.â He shakes his head, and rubs his eyes with his hand. âI was better connected to people at MIT that almost anyone else, right? What happens in these instances where people donât have these connections and this sort of level of determination? They get completely crushed.
âWhat kind of justice is there in a world, in that instance? Because most people donât have anywhere near the resources that weâve applied to this. I donât think Iâm stupid, and I donât think I give up easily. But most people. Most people do.â
The house of ideas is tucked back at the end of a very long drive, off a leafy road in Highland Park. The minivan parked outside is a sensible beige, with a sticker on the driverâs side door, a small rectangle with a black-and-white photo of a dark-haired young man and the words: âJustice for Aaron Swartz.â On the bumper is another: âHacking is not a crime.â
Inside, shelves buckle with books: a gold-embossed edition of the Talmud, manuals on coding in Python, a huge tome on Matisse, a guide to visiting family-friendly ranches. Stacks of magazines slump under the coffee table; portraits of brown-haired boys line the mantel. In one photo, the eldest stands to the left of his father, arms pulled behind him. He wears a slight smile. Itâs the same as his fatherâs.
The house is not far from Lake Michigan, and every morning the father wakes and tries to walk, under the pretense of exercise, but really as a way to think. Lately, though, the shoreline has been under construction, so heâs been walking the ravines he used to play in as a child. He can still tell you exactly the way the paths twist and wind. The thoughts, they follow him too.
Other times, heâll go to his office in a nearby industrial park. Itâs really more of a workshop, full of machines: 3-D printers and Russian microscopes, high-tech ovens and machining tools. He picks through the parts, distracts himself trying to make things work.
âWhat I like to say about this stuff you see on this table,â he tells me there one day, âis that all I do all day is failed experiments.â
He picks up a handful of 2-inch carbon-fiber square gridsâeach about the size of a poker chipâand shows them to me. Itâs obvious that these are the rejects. Theyâve melted in places, or have tiny threads of carbon fiber or rough edges. They are imperfect.
âThis is a failure, too,â he says, holding one between his fingers. âItâs just better than all the other failures.â
He once wrote in a letter to MITâs president, L. Rafael Reif: âWe, you and I, have failed my son, Aaron. I promised him that I would use every synapse in my brain and every sinew of my body to get him out of his predicament. I failed. However, I have seen MIT fail, too.â
Does he still feel this way? I ask.
âOf course. Thereâs a duality there, right? Clearly I failed. Thereâs no question, my son is dead. On the other hand, do I feel that I didnât try hard enough? Yes. Do I feel guilt about not trying hard enough? No. If you understand the distinction Iâm trying to make. Could I have done more? Of course I could have done more. Because you can always do more. Did I put everything in that I possibly could? Did I work as hard pretty much as I knew how? Yes. Do I wish I did more? Yes.
âBut I donât go home at night and say, âWell, you didnât care.â Because I did. I cared about it more than anything else.â His voice catches. âAnd I donât go home at night and say, âI didnât try.â Because I tried. Everything I could figure out. But I failed.â
He points at the carbon pieces heâd just held in his hands. âWith that stuff you get as many chances as you want,â he says. âBut with this I donât get another chance.â
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