Why Did the Justice System Target Aaron Swartz?

26-year-old Internet activist's tragic suicide raises questions about prosecutorial overreach

Aaron Swartz
AP Photo/ThoughtWorks, Pernille Ironside
Aaron Swartz
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Hundreds of mourners filled the Great Hall at New York's Cooper Union on January 19th to honor the life of Aaron Swartz, the Internet activist who took his own life earlier this month at age 26.

Swartz was well-known in technology circles for helping develop the RSS web feed format and the popular site Reddit, among other accomplishments. At the time of his death, he was facing 13 felony charges and up to 50 years in prison: Prosecutors had accused him of using MIT's network to download too many scholarly articles from an academic database called JSTOR.

Swartz's friends and family have said they believe he was driven to his death by a justice system that hounded him needlessly over an alleged crime with no real victims. "[He was] forced by the government to spend every fiber of his being on this damnable, senseless trial," his partner Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman said at the memorial, "with no guarantee that he could exonerate himself at the end of it."

Swartz's tragic death has already begun forcing lawmakers to start rethinking our draconian computer laws. And House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-California) even promised an investigation of the Justice Department prosecutors who did their best to send a young Internet pioneer to prison.

Two zealous federal prosecutors handled Swartz's case: U.S. district attorney Carmen Ortiz and assistant attorney Stephen Heymann. In the days after his death, writers, tech experts, and many of Swartz's friends have called out Heymann and Ortiz for prosecutorial overreach. A White House petition demanding the removal of Ortiz garnered well over 25,000 signatures, reaching the level which guarantees an eventual response from the Obama administration.

Some of Swartz's advocates believe the prosecution sought excessive punishment to set an example in the age of Wikileaks and Anonymous.

"This was, in my opinion, part of a coordinated campaign to scare young Internet activists," says Roy Singham, ThoughtWorks chairman and a friend of Swartz.

It's worth reviewing the so-called crime which put Swartz in the government's crosshairs. From September 24th, 2010 to January 6th, 2011, he accessed MIT's network to scrape an "extraordinary volume of articles" from the academic database JSTOR. Initially, he used the university's open wireless network to grab the files. But after several attempts by JSTOR and MIT to block him, Swartz gained access to a restricted closet and directly hardwired his laptop to the network, leaving it there to pull data.

MIT personnel found Swartz's laptop on the morning of January 4th, 2011, and connected a second computer to the network switch to monitor Swartz's activity. They also fingerprinted Swartz's device and installed a camera in the closet to identify their culprit.

On the same day, the U.S. Secret Service took over the investigation. Court documents reveal that Secret Service agent Michael Prickett recommended MIT personnel leave Swartz's laptop in the closet for monitoring. All acquired data was eventually disclosed to the Secret Service.

On January 6th, 2011, MIT and Cambridge police, with the help of special agent Prickett, arrested Swartz on charges of breaking and entering with intent to commit a felony. As blogger Marcy Wheeler suggests, the early involvement of the Secret Service "makes it clear that this was a nationally directed effort to take down Swartz."

JSTOR chose not to pursue charges against Aaron Swartz – who not only returned all downloaded content, but also ensured it "was not and would not be used, copied, transferred or distributed." That didn't stop MIT and the feds from indicting Swartz on 13 felony charges and insisting on prison time.

Ortiz and Heymann charged Swartz under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a 29-year-old law, notorious in the legal world for being broadly interpretable. They argued that Swartz accessed MIT and JSTOR computers without "authorization," despite MIT's extraordinarily open network policy and Swartz's legal access to JSTOR content.

Despite admitting that Swartz wasn't financially motivated by his act – and even after learning that the 26-year-old had battled depression – Ortiz and Heymann refused to offer a deal that didn't include at least six months of prison time and a guilty plea on all 13 charges. If Swartz chose not to label himself a felon for life, he'd risk the possibility of many years in the slammer.

Any probe into this case must raise serious questions about prosecutorial overreach by Ortiz and Heymann. Heymann's record, in particular, reeks of bullying and power-hungry ambition. A damning report from the Huffington Post paints the assistant U.S. attorney – and head of his court's computer crimes task force – as a careerist who sought tough convictions to bolster his reputation. In 2008, Heymann prosecuted another hacking case that ended with a suicide.

But holding Heymann and Ortiz accountable, while necessary, won't be enough to stop the persecution of Internet activists and hacking culture in this country. It's time to have a serious conversation over whether Swartz's fight for free information truly warranted Secret Service investigation. Should participating in a DDoS attack, the Internet's equivalent of a sit-down strike, send someone to 30 months in prison? As Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig has put it, our government pursued Swartz as if he were a "9/11 terrorist."

Last month, Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi noted the absurdity of HSBC bankers skating on serious drug money laundering charges while hundreds of thousands of Americans sit behind bars for petty drug offenses. The Secret Service's involvement in hunting down a 26-year-old charged with downloading too many scholarly articles is just another example of our justice system's chillingly warped priorities.