MIT to release evidence in Aaron Swartz 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)

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology plans to release documents requested by lawyers for Aaron Swartz, the Reddit co-founder and Internet activist who was charged with hacking into the MIT network.

Swartz was arrested in 2011 for allegedly using the MIT computer system to download millions of articles from JSTOR, an archive of academic journals. If convicted, Swartz faced 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine. The trial was set to begin in April.

Swartz committed suicide in January, prompting questions about how the case was handled. His family blamed MIT and U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz for Swartz’s death, although Ortiz defended the investigation.

On Friday, lawyers for his estate filed a federal court motion in Boston, seeking to have documents in the case made public, including information about vulnerabilities in the MIT network. Currently, the documents are under a protective order. The U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which is investigating the Swartz matter, asked for the information last month.

“Both Congress and the public at large have an important role to play in determining what conduct is considered criminal, particularly in the relatively new and rapidly evolving context of so-called ‘computer crimes,’” attorneys Elliot R. Peters, Daniel Purcell and Michael J. Pineault wrote in the motion. They asked that the documents be released in their entirety, including the names of MIT personnel.

In a letter to the MIT community Tuesday, President L. Rafael Reif said the university will make the documents available, with some exceptions.

“Therefore — in the spirit of openness, balanced with responsibility — we will release the requested MIT documents, redacting employee names and identifying information as appropriate to protect their privacy, as well as redacting information about network vulnerabilities,” Reif wrote.

Reif said the documents would be made public at the same time that Professor Hal Abelson delivers a final report on the university’s involvement in the Swartz case. Abelson, an electrical engineering and computer science professor who directs Creative Commons and the Free Software Foundation, launched a probe at Reif’s request after Swartz’s death. His conclusions are expected this spring, according to the MIT student newspaper, the Tech.

Reif said MIT and people associated with it have been subjected to “a pattern of harassment and personal threats” since Swartz’s death.

“In this volatile atmosphere, I have the responsibility to protect the privacy and safety of those members of our community who have become involved in this matter in the course of doing their jobs for MIT, and to ensure a safe environment for all of us who call MIT home,” Reif said.

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