Overview: The Death of Aaron Swartz and The Anonymous Vendetta

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

From a very young age it was not hard to tell that Aaron Swartz was a prodigy. By age 14 he was apart of a working group that wrote up RSS 1.0.

He eventually went to Stanford but  left after a year explaining in his blog, “It’s got some great professors and I certainly learned a bunch, but I didn’t find it a very intellectual atmosphere, since most of the other kids seemed profoundly unconcerned with their studies.”

Swartz then started his own wiki platform called Infogami that eventually merged with Reddit in 2005. All before he was 20 years old. In 2006, Reddit was purchased by the same publishing company that owns Wired magazine.

Also an activist, Swartz co-founded Demand Progress an organization that focuses on civil liberties, civil rights and government reform. The organization was originally created as his response to SOPA and played a vital role in stopping the bill. 

Back in 2011, Swartz downloaded over 4 million academic journal articles from JSTOR to his laptop at MIT. According to an expert witness on his case, Swartz did not “hack” JSTOR, but rather wrote a handful of basic python scripts that first discovered the URLs of journal articles and then used curl to request them.

Being a research fellow at Harvard, Swartz already had a JSTOR account and additionally, MIT has an “open campus” which allows JSTOR to be accessed from the campus network. Within a few weeks into the downloading, Swartz was arrested by police.

This led to a grand jury indictment, although JSTOR decided not pursue a civil litigation against him, MIT pushed forward. Swartz was unwilling to plead guilty in his case, he did not see himself a felon.

Apart of the controversy of this case was that the articles that were downloaded were already free to begin with. JSTOR called his access a “significant misuse”.

According to the same blog by the expert witness, “at the time of Aaron’s actions, the JSTOR website allowed an unlimited number of downloads by anybody on MIT’s 18.x Class-A network. The JSTOR application lacked even the most basic controls to prevent what they might consider abusive behavior, such as CAPTCHAs triggered on multiple downloads, requiring accounts for bulk downloads, or even the ability to pop a box and warn a repeat downloader.”

Prosecutors such as Carmen Ortiz were persistent in pursuing Swartz and brought the case under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

“If convicted on these charges, Swartz faces up to 35 years in prison, to be followed by three years of supervised release, restitution, forfeiture and a fine of up to $1 million,” said Ortiz in a press release from 2011.

Swartz was found dead in his apartment January 11, 2013. It was reported that he hung himself and left no suicide note.

Shortly after his death , Ortiz defended her actions saying, that her office’s actions were “appropriate,” and that she had only been seeking a six-month sentence in “a low-security setting” rather than the 30 years’ jail that his actions might have attracted.

The prosecutors have received wide-spread criticism for their persecution of Swartz. The most dramatic response though, has been from hacking group Anonymous.

In a column for the Boston Globe, Swartz’s first lawyer expressed his frustration by saying,  “The thing that galls me is that I told Heymann the kid was a suicide risk, his reaction was a standard reaction in that office, not unique to Steve. He said, ‘Fine, we’ll lock him up.’ I’m not saying they made Aaron kill himself. Aaron might have done this anyway. I’m saying they were aware of the risk, and they were heedless.”

On January 26, Anonymous hacked the United States Sentencing Commission (known as Operation Last Resort) shutting down the website and leaving a youtube video explaining their intention and why they chose the USSC.

“This website was chosen due to the symbolic nature of its purpose — the federal sentencing guidelines which enable prosecutors to cheat citizens of their constitutionally-guaranteed right to a fair trial, by a jury of their peers — the federal sentencing guidelines which are in clear violation of the 8th amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishments.”

It was explained in the video that enough materials were obtained for multiple “warheads” that would be launched against the US Justice Department. The warheads apparently contain sensitive leaks.

After the site was restored, it was hacked again turning the website into an interactive game of Asteroids. Once everything was blown away, a Guy Fawkes face would be revealed.

Photo Credit: zdnet.com

Photo Credit: zdnet.com

The over all goal of these hacks from Anonymous was to make their demands from legal reform known. And unless that happens, the faceless group is willing to cause “collateral damage” by releasing these “warheads.”

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3 thoughts on “Overview: The Death of Aaron Swartz and The Anonymous Vendetta

  1. “left no suicide note” … for someone like this guy, who wrote tons of stuff, to leave no note, that’s odd. I’m surprised the death was not investigated as a possible homicide, in light of this note on his remembrance page:

    “Last morning, I got message from a friend on Whatsapp. “Aaron Swartz committed suicide?” I was like “Are you kidding me? We met on Wed. and he said see you tomorrow when I got off the train!”. To confirm this, I texted Brian and googled Aaron’s full name. Wikipedia says “Aaron H. Swartz (November 8, 1986 – January 11, 2013)”. But I still could not believe it, I grabbed my computer, found twitter timeline and HN news has been flooded by RIP Aaron and memorial blogs this whole morning. I read some of them and suddenly realized: yes, this skinny white smart guy is dead.

    Last time I spoke to him was on the train back from an event with others. We six were talking about buying nonprofits and shutting them down, about building a robot to punch people in faces when they break build, about should or should not believe in science, about one insightful webmaster should buy all the DNSs with any possible variance , for example, purpose.org, purpose.com, purpose.net, purpose.*. We stopped the DNS topic after a bit, but Aaron himself was still entertainted by this joke, “doulbe-purpose, multipurpose..” Somehow, he was a complete adult and forever kid at the same time.” – Willa Wang 13 January 2013

    This doesn’t have the feel of someone who’s suicidally depressed. I wonder if any forensic toxicology was done, he could have been killed or rendered unconscious, and then left hanging.

      • As an attorney I’ve represented quite a few clients in involuntary civil commitment proceedings over the past five years or so, about 30 of whom had either attempted suicide or threatened it, and Aaron Swartz doesn’t really fit in with what I’ve seen, which is why I regard the death as suspicious.

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