Coder Turned Progressive Activist Aaron Swartz Charged In MIT Network Breach

In what is sure to become a cause celebre, federal law enforcement authorities on Tuesday unsealed an indictment against Aaron Swartz, one of the young creators of the popular social news sharing service Reddit, and a prominent progressive activist.

Federal authorities have charged Swartz with breaking into MIT’s network and using an automated program to download more than four million articles from JSTOR, an online database of academic journals maintained at MIT between late September 2010 and early January 2011.

According to the indictment, among other things JSTOR prohibits automated downloads of content and downloads of entire journals. MIT is a subscriber to JSTOR.The indictment claims that the 24-year-old Swartz accessed MIT’s databases by sneaking into one of the university’s computer wiring closets in a building basement and accessing the network through a switch in the closet.

The feds allege that he was attempting to distribute the millions of documents through online file-sharing systems.

“Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars,” said US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz. “It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away.”

Swartz declined to speak about the case with TPM, but pointed us to a statement on the Demand Progress blog.

He’s the former executive director and founder of the organization, and co-founder of Bold Progressives, a political action committee that describes itself as dedicated “to electing bold progressive candidates to federal office and to help those candidates and their campaigns save money, work smarter, and win more often.”

Swartz surrendered himself and was arraigned in U.S. District Court in Boston on Tuesday morning, where he pleaded not guilty.

His attorney is Andrew Good, a well-known lawyer who has been involved in many high-profile computer intrusion cases.

If convicted, Swartz, a well-known and admired figure in the high-tech community, could face up to 35 years in prison and/or a fine of $1 million dollars.

A child prodigy who was home-schooled, flown around the world to speak as a teenager on computing topics, and profiled in Wired magazine, Swartz has been involved in building many aspects of the web that everyone uses on a daily basis. He is widely credited with co-founding Reddit, with which he is no longer affiliated, but his precise role is disputed by others involved in launching Reddit.

Demand Progress’ Executive Director David Segal professed puzzlement at the Tuesday development.

“This makes no sense,” he said on the group’s blog “it’s like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library.”

“It’s even more strange because JSTOR has settled any claims against Aaron, explained they’ve suffered no loss or damage, and asked the government not to prosecute,” he added.

But this could be a political statement from Swartz, since he’s been a long-time activist on copyright issues.

As the indictment notes, Swartz is a fellow at Harvard’s Center for Ethics, where his mentor Larry Lessig is the director.

The indictment notes that Swartz could have accessed the research there, but chose instead to break into MIT’s network.

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