Documents to be released in Aaron Swartz hacking case

Internet activist Aaron Swartz, seen here at a conference in May 2012, committed suicide in January. (peretzp/flickr)
Internet activist Aaron Swartz, seen here at a conference in May 2012, committed suicide in January. Credit: peretzp/flickr

A judge on Monday ordered the release of previously sealed documents in the criminal hacking case against Internet activist Aaron Swartz.

Swartz committed suicide in January before going to trial for allegedly stealing millions of academic articles from a private database using a computer network at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Swartz’s estate asked for the documents to be released to shed light on what they have termed an overzealous prosecution of the 26-year-old.

The documents, which include information about Swartz’s purported hacking into the JSTOR database using MIT’s computer network, must be stripped of the names of witnesses and law enforcement personnel, Judge Nathaniel Gorton ordered. Information about weaknesses in the two institutions’ computer networks must also be redacted, Gorton said.

Since Swartz’s death, “MIT and JSTOR were subjected to a variety of threats and harassing incidents by individuals purportedly retaliating in the name of Mr. Swartz,” Gorton wrote to explain why the names should not be released. The incidents included a hoax report in February that a gunman was on the loose on MIT’s campus.

Swartz founded the group Demand Progress and led a successful campaign to block a bill introduced in 2011 in the U.S. House of Representatives called the Stop Online Piracy Act, which generated fierce opposition in the technological community. He also helped create an early version of the Web feed system RSS and played a role in building the popular news sharing website Reddit.

The case ignited a controversy over U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz’s reliance on the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act law. Prosecutors working for Ortiz used the law to charge Swartz with 13 felony counts that carried maximum prison time of 35 years although he had not profited from the JSTOR downloading.

Ortiz’s office, which had pressed to have the names removed from the documents, praised the ruling. “We believe that the court’s ruling strikes a reasonable balance between providing the public access to relevant information and protecting the privacy and safety interests of witnesses and victims in this matter,” spokeswoman Christina DiIorio-Sterling said in an email.

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