TECH
01/15/2013 08:22 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2013

Aaron Swartz Case 'Snowballed Out Of MIT's Hands,' Source Says

Aaron Swartz and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology seemed to hold similar beliefs about open access on the Internet.

Swartz, a well-known Internet activist, believed that copyrighted information should be made freely available online. MIT was one of the first universities to grant access to its course materials and professors' scholarly articles without charge to anyone with an Internet connection.

But when Swartz was caught using MIT's network to download academic journals and share them online, the university contacted law enforcement -- which led to the involvement of the Secret Service -- and helped federal authorities build their case against him.

Privately, several MIT officials expressed concerns that prosecutors were "overreaching" by charging Swartz with federal crimes that carried a sentence of up to 35 years in prison, according to a MIT employee familiar with the investigation.

But by then, it was too late. "By the time this thing snowballed out of MIT's hands, it was gone," said the employee, who asked not to be named because he still works at the university. "When the federal government chooses to prosecute, you don’t get to say no."

On Friday, Swartz, 26, was found dead in his apartment of an apparent suicide. He was facing trial in April for allegedly stealing millions of scholarly journal articles from the digital archive JSTOR using MIT's network. Before his death, federal prosecutors told Swartz and his attorney that he could spend six months behind bars and plead guilty to 13 federal crimes, but they rejected the offer, believing they could win at trial, his attorney told the Boston Globe.

Swartz suffered from depression, and his reasons for taking his own life remain unclear. But his supporters say that his looming federal trial was a contributing factor in his death and they blame prosecutors and MIT for pursuing the case.

On Tuesday, mourners paid tribute to Swartz during an emotional funeral service in his hometown of Highland Park, Ill. During the service, Swartz's father was quoted as saying his son "was killed by the government, and MIT betrayed all of its basic principles."

MIT is planning an investigation of its involvement with the federal case against Swartz. Professor Hal Abelson, who is leading the internal investigation, declined to comment Tuesday about MIT's role in the case, saying he had not yet begun his inquiry. "Right now, people need time to think about Aaron," Abelson said.

The university's decision to contact law enforcement in Swartz's case appeared to run counter to its history of embracing computer hackers and open access to information on the Internet. In 2009, MIT faculty voted unanimously to make their scholarly articles available for free online. The decision emphasized MIT's "commitment to disseminating the fruits of its research and scholarship as widely as possible," according to a university press release.

"The vote is a signal to the world that we speak in a unified voice; that what we value is the free flow of ideas," MIT faculty chair Bish Sinyal said at the time.

Abelson said the university had, at times, struggled to create policies that were consistent with those values. "At MIT there's always been an appreciation of the value of hacking and being more flexible," he said in an interview. "But there are always hard decisions about how that works out in terms of policy."

At the time of his alleged offenses, Swartz was a fellow at Harvard University, not a student at MIT, but his lawyers argued that MIT's Internet policy allowed unfettered use of its network. Unlike other universities, MIT did not require a password or any affiliation with the school to access servers and digital libraries, Swartz's lawyers said in court filings.

MIT's network lacked "even basic controls to prevent abuse," such as preventing users from downloading too many PDFs or utilizing too much bandwidth, said Alex Stamos, a computer security researcher who planned to testify as an expert witness on Swartz's behalf during his upcoming trial.

"In fact, in my 12 years of professional security work I have never seen a network this open," Stamos said of MIT in a blog post over the weekend.

In late 2010, MIT staff was notified three times by JSTOR that a user on the university's network had been abusing its subscription to the archive by downloading thousands of articles. After the third notice, MIT employees traced the IP address to a laptop in a basement wiring closet on campus. The laptop belonged to Swartz.

According to the source close to the investigation, when MIT employees found the laptop, they contacted MIT police, who called Cambridge police, where the call was then routed to a detective assigned to the New England Electronic Crimes Task Force. That detective contacted another member of the task force, Michael Pickett, a special agent with the U.S. Secret Service, who helped lead the investigation.

Pickett did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

After contacting law enforcement, MIT helped federal authorities gather evidence to build their case against Swartz, his attorneys said in court filing. MIT officials, for example, installed video surveillance to catch Swartz returning for his laptop, according to filings.

MIT employees also captured network traffic from Swartz's laptop and turned that data over to the Secret Service without requiring a warrant or subpoena. MIT disclosed that data to law enforcement with permission from the university's general counsel’s office, Swartz's attorney wrote in an October court filing.

Jay Wilcoxson, who works in the university's office of general counsel, declined to comment through a university spokeswoman.

Some say the university could have handled Swartz's case internally. "The lesson learned is MIT needs a clear policy on when to talk to outside law enforcement because the case became a fiasco," the MIT source said. "Once federal prosecutors were on the case, there was no going back."

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