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Aaron Swartz
January 5, 2014 12:40 PM   Subscribe

Losing Aaron. "After his son was arrested for downloading files at MIT, Bob Swartz did everything in his power to save him. He couldn’t. Now he wants the institute to own up to its part in Aaron’s death." [Via]
posted by homunculus (32 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
This should be required reading for anybody who even thinks about applying to MIT (But to be fair, most other institutions would pull the same move).

"This is how the university will take care of you."
posted by hal_c_on at 12:47 PM on January 5 [4 favorites]


Single page.

I found it striking how harassment seemed to be just another part of Heymann's job as a prosecutor.
“He clearly doesn’t have a sense of what he’s doing to people,” Bob says of Heymann. “And this isn’t the first time.”

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 he’d become convinced that he would be scapegoated as a key member of the hacker ring because of his past conviction. “The feds play dirty,” he wrote.
I do understand how harassment and general pressure is useful in any oppositional situation and that prosecutors feel they must play as hard as they can to land as big a score as they can. They can say it's their part in the adversarial system; the defense will also play vigorously, and it will all work out.

This is an aspect of legal cases that illustrates how it's not as simple and balanced as that. How can the defense legally pressure and harass the prosecution to make them crack or give up or make mistakes outside of court? They can't. There's witness intimidation, but that's neither desirable or available to non-violent defendants.

All this happened in a case in which the defendant had plenty of money and connections, as Bob Swartz noted. Poorer defendants are fucked. This is what lionizing at-all-costs prosecution gets us.
posted by ignignokt at 12:59 PM on January 5 [16 favorites]


Read this a few days ago when it was posted in a comment in another thread.

Really sad and bad. The lack of willingness of MIT to be involved on Aaron's behalf, and the complete willingness of MIT to just hand over anything law enforcement asked for about the case without asking for a warrant, and the obvious policies which MIT had in place which made it clear they were pretty much okay with what Aaron was doing (although perhaps not how he was doing it)....

And eventually to be hounded into suicide by legal matters...

Yeah, should be required reading.
posted by hippybear at 1:00 PM on January 5


Lawrence Lessig: NHRebellion

from the the-burdens-of-being-Lessig’s-friend department

Who are the walkers?
posted by homunculus at 1:04 PM on January 5 [2 favorites]


The adversarial system is a bad way to do criminal law. It's not even a particularly good way to do civil cases, but for criminal defendants having the entire apparatus of the state arrayed against you and pretending that there is "equality of arms" because you have a lawyer is a farce. This kind of abuse is the inevitable result of a system where it isn't the prosecutor's job to find the truth.
posted by 1adam12 at 1:04 PM on January 5 [5 favorites]


Indeed, as prosecutors explained to MIT, it was Aaron’s own protest of the prosecution that had made his an “institutional case”—meaning, I take it, that any obligation of proportional punishment no longer applied.

Confused… what is this "institutional case" jargon and why does Lessig interpret that as having effect on the type of punishment/sentencing?
posted by polymodus at 1:25 PM on January 5


Aaron Swartz' died 11 January 2013 so probably several interesting pieces soon :

Why They Mattered: Aaron Swartz by Lawrence Lessig

Big Idea for 2014: Open Data (the Legacy of Aaron Swartz)

The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz (documentary announcement)

Also worth mentioning aaronswartzhackathon.org around his birthday last November.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:05 PM on January 5 [2 favorites]


All this happened in a case in which the defendant had plenty of money and connections, as Bob Swartz noted. Poorer defendants are fucked. This is what lionizing at-all-costs prosecution gets us.

Every year I spend another year working in court reform, hanging out with my public defender friends, working with my States Attorney colleagues, volunteering with a post-conviction legal aid agency. And every year I only find this to be more true.
posted by crush-onastick at 2:34 PM on January 5 [4 favorites]


The lack of willingness of MIT to be involved on Aaron's behalf, and the complete willingness of MIT to just hand over anything law enforcement asked for about the case without asking for a warrant,

MIT: We're really smart...but also big wusses.
posted by hal_c_on at 2:46 PM on January 5


Rampant Prosecutorial Misconduct (NYT)
posted by jeffburdges at 2:57 PM on January 5 [2 favorites]



This should be required reading for anybody who even thinks about applying to MIT (But to be fair, most other institutions would pull the same move).

"This is how the university will take care of you."


Aaron Swartz had no relationship with MIT at the time.

If he had, this would have been dealt with as a disciplinary matter, and MIT Legal would not have been in charge of the debacle.

Before casting aspersions at MIT, ask yourself how much you know about your alma mater's legal department.
posted by ocschwar at 4:07 PM on January 5


MIT: We're really smart...but also big wusses.

Basically what the NSA likes in a typical knowledge worker. And the FIRE industries.

Dumb Sunday stoner stuff starts here:

Simple Ordinal "Gematria"
NSA + CIA + DHS + MIT = 120

Best Anagrams:
C, Math Aids Sin
China's Amidst
Admits Chains
China: It's Mad

ILLUMINATI = 120

Best Anagrams:
Alumni I Lit
Lati Numil
Ill Aim Unit
posted by lordaych at 4:23 PM on January 5 [1 favorite]


Really, really well done article.
posted by odinsdream at 4:27 PM on January 5 [1 favorite]


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 Aaron’s 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 son’s death, coming here has become an exercise in grief.

so, Bob believes MIT is culpable in his son's death, but still consults for them?
posted by ennui.bz at 6:05 PM on January 5


ennui.biz, I was surprised about that, too.

I realize that people can't just throw away their careers/livelihood, but Bob Swartz doesn't strike me as someone who is hurting for other professional options. Perhaps I'm missing something but it seems odd that he has not severed connections with MIT.

I am also a little confused that the article derided the decision to prosecute Aaron Swartz for 'exceeding authorised usage', on the grounds that he (and anyone on MIT campus) was authorised to access JSTOR. Surely the 'exceeding' part is the point. There is presumably something in their 'fair usage' terms and conditions that precludes an individual from bulk-downloading over 4 million articles.
posted by Salamander at 6:18 PM on January 5


MIT's a decent sized place, he could be copacetic with the Media Lab while disdaining the legal dep't, and not be particularly purity-focused.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 6:23 PM on January 5 [1 favorite]


About once a month I think about Aaron and miss him, feel a small physical pain. I can't say we were friends, we knew each other and travelled in the same circles but I hadn't talked to him for a couple of years. But I sure miss his voice in my community. I particularly wish he were around to ask his opinion on the NSA and Snowden's leaks, I'm sure he would have had something precise to say.

I also went to MIT, the Media Lab, as a grad student. And it's hard for me to fully blame MIT here. They didn't do anything to help Aaron, and I wish they had. They should have. But he wasn't a student or formal member of the MIT community (does the article mention that? I didn't see it). And the whole case was so strangely zealous. I guess I accuse MIT of incompetence, not malice.

I reserve my blame and scorn for the prosecutors, for the US Attorney's office in Massachussetts, for Carmen Ortiz and Stephen Heymann. Federal prosecutors are supposed to show discretion. Hounding a bright young man for what is at absolute worst a crime of intellectual propriety appropriation is disgusting. If I'm being honest I also have to blame depression, or whatever unbalanced state Aaron was in when he killed himself. But mostly the cruel people who pushed him over the edge.
posted by Nelson at 6:58 PM on January 5 [7 favorites]


Aaron Swartz had no relationship with MIT at the time.

To see how MIT rallies behind their own, why not look at Star Simpson's story. Star is a super-nice and talented nerd hacker, by the way. She was also arrested at Logan Airport as a suspected terrorist because she was wearing a blinky LED circuit on her clothing outside the secure area.
STAR: Yeah, so not only did the Boston Herald and other papers slander me on the day, but MIT made a press statement on that same day, before even I know on, and when they definitely did not know what was going on -- doing the same thing. Making a public statement about what had happened. There were no facts available and they were making statements about what had happened, my own school.

XENI: What did they say, Star?

STAR: That my actions were reckless and cause for concern.

XENI: How did that make you feel?

STAR: I didn't know where to go, who to talk to. What I should do. I needed advice from someone. I'm trying to do well in school, here's my school telling the entire world what they think of me without any basis.
In short, MIT's administration has a history of screwing its own when the law's involved.
posted by zippy at 9:14 PM on January 5 [8 favorites]


I also went to MIT, the Media Lab, as a grad student. And it's hard for me to fully blame MIT here. They didn't do anything to help Aaron, and I wish they had. They should have. But he wasn't a student or formal member of the MIT community (does the article mention that? I didn't see it). And the whole case was so strangely zealous. I guess I accuse MIT of incompetence, not malice.

I reserve my blame and scorn for the prosecutors, for the US Attorney's office in Massachussetts, for Carmen Ortiz and Stephen Heymann. Federal prosecutors are supposed to show discretion. Hounding a bright young man for what is at absolute worst a crime of intellectual propriety appropriation is disgusting. If I'm being honest I also have to blame depression, or whatever unbalanced state Aaron was in when he killed himself. But mostly the cruel people who pushed him over the edge.


But that is a fairly conventional individualist-attribution account of a conflict. Whereas Aaron didn't come across as someone who would blame other people—looking at his activist endeavors (and for example the article's mentioning of his use of Kafka), I think he would have been partial to a lens of systemic analysis rather than understanding these events through a model that emphasized personal blame.
posted by polymodus at 12:02 AM on January 6


She was also arrested at Logan Airport as a suspected terrorist because she was wearing a blinky LED circuit on her clothing outside the secure area.

OH NOES SHE HAS A BOMB WITH AN LED DISPLAY JUS LIKE TEH MOVIES
posted by JHarris at 2:01 AM on January 6


Very interesting article about Star Simpson, zippy. Boston has issues with LEDs, JHarris.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:13 AM on January 6


Yeah, those issues had infuriating consequences. The Boston Mooninite LED scare eventually led to the resignation of Jim Samples, then-head of Cartoon Network, and thus his replacement by Stuart Snyder, causing the channel to get a lot suckier.

That's right. Fear of LEDs are why Cartoon Network airs live action programming.
posted by JHarris at 4:17 AM on January 6 [3 favorites]


(And as for bombs, I've come to call the stupid red digital-clock display on explosives seen in the media DRBs, for Digital Readout Bombs. They only exist in movies because of the need to set up tension -- arbitrarily -- by showing the viewer how much time until the bomb goes off.)
posted by JHarris at 4:23 AM on January 6


Average Wait Time For A Response At Administration's 'We The People' Petition Site At 298 Days
posted by jeffburdges at 7:18 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]


We know the DoJ was partially seeking revenge over PACER and RECAP through JSTOR, but since his SOPA activism likely raised ire as well :

Congress Introduce Bi-Partisan Bill To Abdicate Its Own Role And Screw Over American Public All At Once

Call Your Representative to Demand a ‘No’ Vote on Fast Track Trade Authority
posted by jeffburdges at 7:23 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]


The Day We Fight Back (A Day Of Action Against The NSA In Memory Of Aaron Swartz)
posted by jeffburdges at 11:20 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]


Also Aaron Swartz related : Senator Leahy Tries To Sneak Through Plans To Make Merely Talking About Computer Hacking A Serious Crime
posted by jeffburdges at 11:21 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]


Members Of Congress Ask Eric Holder To Try Again In His Explanation Of The Prosecution Of Aaron Swartz
posted by jeffburdges at 2:31 PM on January 11


Vaguely related : Anonymous Hacker Who Exposed the Steubenville Rapists Gets More Prison Time Than Rapists
posted by jeffburdges at 10:52 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]


Aaron Swartz - SOPA and The Day We Fight Back
posted by jeffburdges at 3:11 AM on January 20


The Internet’s Own Boy: Film on Aaron Swartz Captures Late Activist’s Struggle for Online Freedom
posted by homunculus at 9:50 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]


The U.S. Crackdown on Hackers Is Our New War on Drugs
posted by homunculus at 9:53 AM on January 23 [2 favorites]


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