Two Days Before MIT and Cambridge Cops Arrested Aaron Swartz, Secret Service Took Over the Investigation
The public story of Aaron Swartz’ now-tragic two year fight with the Federal government usually starts with his July 19, 2011 arrest.
But that’s not when he was first arrested for accessing a closet at MIT in which he had a netbook downloading huge quantities of scholarly journals. He was first arrested on January 6, 2011 by MIT and Cambrige, MA cops.
According to a suppression motion in his case, however two days before Aaron was arrested, the Secret Service took over the investigation.
On the morning of January 4, 2011, at approximately 8:00 am, MIT personnel located the netbook being used for the downloads and decided to leave it in place and institute a packet capture of the network traffic to and from the netbook.4 Timeline at 6. This was accomplished using the laptop of Dave Newman, MIT Senior Network Engineer, which was connected to the netbook and intercepted the communications coming to and from it. Id. Later that day, beginning at 11:00 am, the Secret Service assumed control of the investigation. [my emphasis]
In fact, in one of the most recent developments in discovery in Aaron’s case, the government belatedly turned over an email showing Secret Service agent Michael Pickett offering to take possession of the hardware seized from Aaron “anytime after it has been processed for prints or whenever you [Assistant US Attorney Stephen Heymann] feel it is appropriate.” Another newly disclosed document shows the Pickett accompanied the local cops as they moved the hardware they had seized from Aaron around.
According to the Secret Service, they get involved in investigations with:
- Significant economic or community impact
- Participation of organized criminal groups involving multiple districts or transnational organizations
- Use of schemes involving new technology
Downloading scholarly articles is none of those things.
A lot of people are justifiably furious with US Attorney Carmen Ortiz and AUSA Heymann’s conduct on this case.
But the involvement of the Secret Service just as it evolved from a local breaking and entry case into the excessive charges ultimately charged makes it clear that this was a nationally directed effort to take down Swartz.
MIT’s President Rafael Reif has expressed sadness about Aaron’s death and promised an investigation into the university’s treatment of Aaron. I want to know whether MIT–which is dependent on federal grants for much of its funding–brought in the Secret Service.
The US justice system is “rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach,” says the family of American activist Aaron Swartz, who was an outspoken critic of the US government and was recently found dead in his apartment.
“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach,” said Swartz’s family in a statement.
Since Friday, when the activist and computer prodigy was found dead in his New York apartment, internet activists have also blamed the US Attorney’s office.
Before his death, Swartz openly criticized the US and the Israeli regime for launching joint cyber attacks against Iran.
The blogger was also vocal in criticizing Obama’s “kill list,” a list of individuals who are suspected of terrorism by the US and are listed for targeted killing after final approval by the US president himself.
Swartz was also critical of the monopoly of information and believed that information should be available to everyone for the benefit of the society.
The US Attorney’s office in Massachusetts accused the 26-year-old of downloading millions of academic journal articles from the online service JSTOR by using Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)’s computer network in 2010, to make such articles available to the public.
Even though, Swartz handed over his hard drives and the charges against him were dropped by the JSTOR, US Attorneys Carmen Ortiz and Steve Heymann, with the support of MIT, continued to pursue the activist’s prosecution.
According to the statement by the activist’s family, officials were demanding heavy penalties of more than 30 years in prison and up to USD 1.0 million in fines for Swartz, “to punish an alleged crime that had no victims.”
The activist’s death comes weeks before he was due in court.
A petition presented to the White House “for overreach in the case of Aaron Swartz” has been set up to remove US Attorney Ortiz and it has already gained almost 10,000 signatures.