Anonymous hacks MIT after Aaron Swartz’s suicide


Hacktivist group defaces university pages after the school promises a full investigation into MIT’s role in events leading up to the Internet activist taking his life.

Steven Musil

 January 13, 2013 9:34 PM PST

Anonymous‘ message on an MIT page (click for larger image).

(Credit: Screenshot by Steven Musil/CNET)

 

Just hours after the Massachusetts Institute of Technology pledged an investigation into its role in events leading up to the suicide of Aaron Swartz, online hacktivist group Anonymous defaced the school’s Web site.

Swartz, a Reddit cofounder who championed open access to documents on the Internet, committed suicide on Friday. The 26-year-old was arrested in July 2011 and accused of stealing 4 million documents from MIT and Jstor, an archive of scientific journals and academic papers. He faced $4 million in fines and more than 50 years in prison if convicted.

After MIT President L. Rafael Reif issued a statement this afternoon promising a “thorough analysis of MIT’s involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in fall 2010 up to the present,” Anonymous targeted at least two MIT Web sites. Lacking the loose-knit group’s usual feisty language, the message posted on the Web site was a call for reform in the memory of the late Internet activist.

After calling the prosecution of Swartz “a grotesque miscarriage of justice” and “a distorted and perverse shadow of the justice that Aaron died fighting for,” Anonymous outlined its list of goals under a section reservedly labeled “Our wishes:”

 

  • We call for this tragedy to be a basis for reform of computer crime laws, and the overzealous prosecutors who use them.
  • We call for this tragedy to be a basis for reform of copyright and intellectual property law, returning it to the proper principles of common good to the many, rather than private gain to the few.
  • We call for this tragedy to be a basis for greater recognition of the oppression and injustices heaped daily by certain persons and institutions of authority upon anyone who dares to stand up and be counted for their beliefs, and for greater solidarity and mutual aid in response.
  • We call for this tragedy to be a basis for a renewed and unwavering commitment to a free and unfettered internet, spared from censorship with equality of access and franchise for all.

 

CNET has contacted MIT for comment on the apparent hacking and will update this report when we learn more.

Critics of the prosecutors in the case say the feds were unfairly trying to make an example out of Swartz. “Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy,” Swartz’s family said in a statement released yesterday. “It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.”

CNET has also contacted the U.S. Attorney’s office and will update this report when we hear back.

 

 

MIT president calls for “thorough analysis” of school’s involvement with Swartz


English: Aaron Swartz at a Creative Commons event.

MIT‘s role in Swartz’s JSTOR incident spurred a formal response today.

by  – Jan 14 2013, 5:15am IST, http://arstechnica.com/

Less than 48 hours after Aaron Swartz’s tragic suicide, the institution involved in his high-profile JSTOR incident (that eventually lead to federal charges) has issued a statement.

MIT President Rafael Reif e-mailed the members of the university community this morning to address the situation, despite Swartz never having a formal affiliation with the school. Reif emphasized he was compelled to comment not only because of MIT’s role in the JSTOR incident, but also because Swartz was beloved by many within the MIT community. The president’s tone was clear throughout: “It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy.”

In light of such an acknowledgement, Reif appointed professor Hal Abelson to lead a thorough analysis of the school’s involvement, “from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in fall 2010 up to the present.” Reif asked Abelson to outline options MIT had plus the decisions the institution made, and he promised to share the report with the MIT community once it’s received.

The moment of infamy came back in 2010, as Swartz logged onto MIT’s network to scrape millions of academic papers from JSTOR. Administrators booted his laptop off the Wi-Fi network, but Swartz then entered an MIT network closet and plugged his laptop directly in. From there the feds got involved: Swartz was arrested and charged with multiple counts of computer hacking, wire fraud, and other crimes. The situation still hadn’t been resolved as late as fall 2012, when the feds ratcheted up the charges in September. Swartz faced more than 50 years in prison if convicted on all charged.

Reif’s full statement is below (and it can also be accessed on the MIT Tech blog, along with the outlet’s other Swartz coverage). As plenty continue to grieve, murmurs of small protests on the MIT campus emerged this morning and thousands have taken to Twitter to participate in the #pdftribute, a slew of academics posting PDFs in honor of Swartz.

Reif’s original e-mail

To the members of the MIT community:

Yesterday we received the shocking and terrible news that on Friday in New York, Aaron Swartz, a gifted young man well known and admired by many in the MIT community, took his own life. With this tragedy, his family and his friends suffered an inexpressible loss, and we offer our most profound condolences. Even for those of us who did not know Aaron, the trail of his brief life shines with his brilliant creativity and idealism.

Although Aaron had no formal affiliation with MIT, I am writing to you now because he was beloved by many members of our community and because MIT played a role in the legal struggles that began for him in 2011.

I want to express very clearly that I and all of us at MIT are extremely saddened by the death of this promising young man who touched the lives of so many. It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy.

I will not attempt to summarize here the complex events of the past two years. Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT. I have asked Professor Hal Abelson to lead a thorough analysis of MIT’s involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in fall 2010 up to the present. I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took. I will share the report with the MIT community when I receive it.

I hope we will all reach out to those members of our community we know who may have been affected by Aaron’s death. As always, MIT Medical is available to provide expert counseling, but there is no substitute for personal understanding and support.

With sorrow and deep sympathy,

L. Rafael Reif

#Aaron Swartz, Internet Activist, a Creator of RSS, Is Dead at 26, Apparently a Suicide


Michael Francis McElroy/The New York Times

Aaron Swartz in 2009. One person remembered him as a “a complicated prodigy.”

 

By 
Published: January 12, 2013

An uncle, Michael Wolf, said that Mr. Swartz, 26, had apparently hanged himself, and that a friend of Mr. Swartz’s had discovered the body.

At 14, Mr. Swartz helped create RSS, the nearly ubiquitous tool that allows users to subscribe to online information. He later became an Internet folk hero, pushing to make many Web files free and open to the public. But in July 2011, he was indicted on federal charges of gaining illegal access to JSTOR, a subscription-only service for distributing scientific and literary journals, and downloading 4.8 million articles and documents, nearly the entire library.

Charges in the case, including wire fraud and computer fraud, were pending at the time of Mr. Swartz’s death, carrying potential penalties of up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines.

“Aaron built surprising new things that changed the flow of information around the world,” said Susan Crawford, a professor at the Cardozo School of Law in New York who served in the Obama administration as a technology adviser. She called Mr. Swartz “a complicated prodigy” and said “graybeards approached him with awe.”

Mr. Wolf said he would remember his nephew, who had written in the past about battling depression and suicidal thoughts, as a young man who “looked at the world, and had a certain logic in his brain, and the world didn’t necessarily fit in with that logic, and that was sometimes difficult.”

The Tech, a newspaper of the Massachusetts Institute of Technologyreported Mr. Swartz’s death early Saturday.

Mr. Swartz led an often itinerant life that included dropping out of Stanford, forming companies and organizations, and becoming a fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics.

He formed a company that merged with Reddit, the popular news and information site. He also co-founded Demand Progress, a group that promotes online campaigns on social justice issues — including a successful effort, with other groups, to oppose a Hollywood-backed Internet piracy bill.

But he also found trouble when he took part in efforts to release information to the public that he felt should be freely available. In 2008, he took on PACER, or Public Access to Court Electronic Records, the repository for federal judicial documents.

The database charges 10 cents a page for documents; activists like Carl Malamud, the founder of public.resource.org, have long argued that such documents should be free because they are produced at public expense. Joining Mr. Malamud’s efforts to make the documents public by posting legally obtained files to the Internet for free access, Mr. Swartz wrote an elegant little program to download 20 million pages of documents from free library accounts, or roughly 20 percent of the enormous database.

The government shut down the free library program, and Mr. Malamud feared that legal trouble might follow even though he felt they had violated no laws. As he recalled in a newspaper account, “I immediately saw the potential for overreaction by the courts.” He recalled telling Mr. Swartz: “You need to talk to a lawyer. I need to talk to a lawyer.”

Mr. Swartz recalled in a 2009 interview, “I had this vision of the feds crashing down the door, taking everything away.” He said he locked the deadbolt on his door, lay down on the bed for a while and then called his mother.

The federal government investigated but did not prosecute.

In 2011, however, Mr. Swartz went beyond that, according to a federal indictment. In an effort to provide free public access to JSTOR, he broke into computer networks at M.I.T. by means that included gaining entry to a utility closet on campus and leaving a laptop that signed into the university network under a false account, federal officials said.

Mr. Swartz turned over his hard drives with 4.8 million documents, and JSTOR declined to pursue the case. But Carmen M. Ortiz, a United States attorney, pressed on, saying that “stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.”

Founded in 1995, JSTOR, or Journal Storage, is nonprofit, but institutions can pay tens of thousands of dollars for a subscription that bundles scholarly publications online. JSTOR says it needs the money to collect and to distribute the material and, in some cases, subsidize institutions that cannot afford it. On Wednesday, JSTOR announced that it would open its archives for 1,200 journals to free reading by the public on a limited basis.

Mr. Malamud said that while he did not approve of Mr. Swartz’s actions at M.I.T., “access to knowledge and access to justice have become all about access to money, and Aaron tried to change that. That should never have been considered a criminal activity.”

Mr. Swartz did not talk much about his impending trial, Quinn Norton, a close friend, said on Saturday, but when he did, it was clear that “it pushed him to exhaustion. It pushed him beyond.”

Recent years had been hard for Mr. Swartz, Ms. Norton said, and she characterized him “in turns tough and delicate.” He had “struggled with chronic, painful illness as well as depression,” she said, without specifying the illness, but he was still hopeful “at least about the world.”

Cory Doctorow, a science fiction author and online activist, posted a tribute to Mr. Swartz on BoingBoing.net, a blog he co-edits. In an e-mail, he called Mr. Swartz “uncompromising, principled, smart, flawed, loving, caring, and brilliant.”

 “The world was a better place with him in it,” he said.

Mr. Swartz, he noted, had a habit of turning on those closest to him: “Aaron held the world, his friends, and his mentors to an impossibly high standard — the same standard he set for himself.” Mr. Doctorow added, however, “It’s a testament to his friendship that no one ever seemed to hold it against him (except, maybe, himself).”

In a talk in 2007, Mr. Swartz described having had suicidal thoughts during a low period in his career. He also wrote about his struggle with depression, distinguishing it from sadness.

“Go outside and get some fresh air or cuddle with a loved one and you don’t feel any better, only more upset at being unable to feel the joy that everyone else seems to feel. Everything gets colored by the sadness.”

When the condition gets worse, he wrote, “you feel as if streaks of pain are running through your head, you thrash your body, you search for some escape but find none. And this is one of the more moderate forms.”

Ravi Somaiya contributed reporting.

Farewell to Aaron Swartz, an extraordinary hacker and activist

JANUARY 12, 2013 | BY PETER ECKERSLEY

Yesterday Aaron Swartz, a close friend and collaborator of ours, committed suicide. This is a tragic end to a brief and extraordinary life.

Aaron did more than almost anyone to make the Internet a thriving ecosystem for open knowledge, and to keep it that way. His contributions were numerous, and some of them were indispensable. When we asked him in late 2010 for help in stopping COICA, the predecessor to the SOPA and PIPA Internet blacklist bills, he founded an organization called Demand Progress, which mobilized over a million online activists and proved to be an invaluable ally in winning that campaign.

Aaron Swartz at CCC

Other projects Aaron worked on included the RSSspecificationsweb.pytor2web, the Open Library, and the Chrome port of HTTPS Everywhere. Aaron helped launch the Creative Commons. He was a former co-founder at Reddit, and a member of the team that made the site successful. His blog was often a delight.

Aaron’s eloquent brilliance was mixed with a complicated introversion. He communicated on his own schedule and needed a lot of space to himself, which frustrated some of his collaborators. He was fascinated by the social world around him, but often found it torturous to deal with.

For a long time, Aaron was more comfortable reading books than talking to humans (he once told me something like, “even talking to very smart people is hard, but if I just sit down and read their books, I get their most considered and insightful thoughts condensed in a beautiful and efficient form. I can learn from books faster than I can from talking to the authors.”). His passion for the written word, for open knowledge, and his flair for self-promotion, sometimes producedspectacular results, even before the events that proved to be his undoing.

In 2011, Aaron used the MIT campus network to download millions of journal articles from theJSTOR database, allegedly changing his laptop’s IP and MAC addresses when necessary to get around blocks put in place by JSTOR and MIT and sneaking into a closet to get a faster connection to the MIT network. For this purported crime, Aaron was facing criminal charges with penalties up to thirty-five years in prison, most seriously for “unauthorized access” to computers under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

If we believe the prosecutor’s allegations against him, Aaron had hoped to liberate the millions of scientific and scholarly articles he had downloaded from JSTOR, releasing them so that anyone could read them, or analyze them as a single giant dataset, something Aaron had done before. While his methods were provocative, the goal that Aaron died fighting for — freeing the publicly-funded scientific literature from a publishing system that makes it inaccessible to most of those who paid for it — is one that we should all support.

Moreover, the situation Aaron found himself in highlights the injustice of U.S. computer crime laws, and particularly their punishment regimes. Aaron’s act was undoubtedly political activism, and taking such an act in the physical world would, at most, have a meant he faced light penalties akin to trespassing as part of a political protest. Because he used a computer, he instead faced long-term incarceration. This is a disparity that EFF has fought against for years. Yesterday, it had tragic consequences. Lawrence Lessig has called for this tragedy to be a basis for reform of computer crime laws, and the overzealous prosecutors who use them. We agree.

Aaron, we will sorely miss your friendship, and your help in building a better world. May you read in peace.

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