Friday, January 25, 2013

The Lonesome Death of Aaron Swartz

“Information is power.  But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves.” 
Aaron Swartz

So begins the dramatic story of a computer whiz kid’s untimely death and the overzealous prosecutor’s tactics in the case.  

Aaron Swartz, a young and brilliant programmer gained fame on the internet for co-developing the Rich Site Summary (RSS) which allows users to receive and read timely updates from web sites and blogs.  A bit of a rebel, Swartz was also a proponent of open access of everything on the Internet, and founded Demand Progress, which called for an end to Internet censorship bills (such as, SOPA/PIPA, which he played a key role in defeating).

Swartz’s crime?  On January 6, 2011 he arrested by the Feds for supposedly downloading thousands of academic journal articles from JSTOR.  The Federal prosecutors alleged they were worth millions of dollars.  And what is JSTOR?

Here’s a good description of JSTOR by science journalist Yoichi Shimatsu:

“The JSTOR archive is not owned or based at MIT, as media reports suggest, but is registered at the Network Connections server farm in Herndon, Maryland.  JSTOR is under the control of a nonprofit organization called ITHAKA, whose board of directors includes top university administrators and the W.W. Norton book publisher.”

Ironically, Aaron Swartz had a paid subscription to JSTOR, so he was hardly stealing anything.  JSTOR got all of the journals back, none were released out in the wild, none were sold by Swartz, and they never pressed any charges (though MIT did).  The Feds went hell for leather after Swartz with a possible 35-year prison sentence and over a million dollars in fines.  One thing that Swartz hated about JSTOR is that all of the authors of the scholarly journals are not paid, but their publishers are.  Lost in all of this is what Swartz was going to do with the journals.

The devil in red.  U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz

Carmen Ortiz
And who was the lead on this?  Carmen Ortiz, the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts. Christian Stork in his article, Carmen Ortiz Sordid Rap Sheet give a quick overview on one paragraph of Ortiz’s actions:

“Despite JSTOR’s subsequent securing of the ‘stolen’ content and refusal to press charges, Swartz was arrested by the feds and charged originally with four felony counts under the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. On those charges alone, Swartz was facing a possible 35-year sentence and over $1,000,000 in fines. Just three months ago, a ‘Superseding Indictment’ filed in the case by the U.S. attorney’s office upped the felony count from four to 13. If convicted, Swartz was looking at possibly over 50 years in prison: a conceivable life sentence.”

Stork goes on to document some of the Carmen Ortiz’s intrigues as a U.S. Attorney, particularly her attempt to take the motel property of one, Russ Caswell under the criminal forfeiture laws.  It seems there were 15 drug busts at the motel over a 14-year period.  According to Stork, a DEA agent examines property documents looking for real estate with numerous drug busts to basically seize, presumably in the name of the “public good.”  This is an example of why the criminal forfeiture laws are so wrong–it results in the government coveting property and basically stealing it.  In this case a seedy motel valued at over a million dollars, made even sweeter since it had no liens on it.  And even more unfair, just up the street from Coswell’s motel is a Motel 6, with far more drug arrests on that property.  You catch the drift...Motel 6 is a large corporate chain, they are the untouchables.  It’s the little guy they want to go after.  And Ortiz has a pattern of such schemes.  

The case is ongoing but shows a pattern of Carmen Ortiz’s nasty prosecutorial  behavior.  Namely, to come down heavy on the small fry.  

Back To Aaron
The curious thing is, why did they come down so hard on this guy?  What he did was minor compared to other goings on and it makes one wonder what kind of case the Fed’s had that work result in a conviction.  If he is guilty of anything it was trespass in a university server closet.  Aaron started out with 4 counts but Carmen Ortiz upped it to 13.  What?  And all for files that were returned to the owner with no charges filed by the owner.   It doesn’t make sense.   It should be noted that Swartz never pled guilty to any of the charges nor would accept a plea deal.  The Feds hate that.  It means they will have to work so harder to prove the charges against a defendant.  

On January 14 Aaron Swartz was found hanging in his apartment.  Curiously, another hacking case covered by a Carmen Ortiz colleague, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Heymann, also resulted in a suicide of a teenage hacker Jonathan James, who was an unindicted co-conspirator in an earlier computer hacking case.  I’m just saying...

If Swartz was so confident in winning his case by not opting to plea bargain then would he despair enough to hang himself?  It’s been claimed he had a history of mental problems but I haven’t uncovered anything on that yet.  But that’s the usual M.O. for these situations.  The wicked have learned the best way to murder somebody is either to make it appear as an accident or a suicide. I should be noted that friends that saw him the day before his death said he was talkative and smiling.

The Book Has Been Thrown
No doubt, the government came down very hard on Aaron Swartz.  Severe enough warren concern and heavy criticism of Ortiz’s actions.  So far I’ve read some interesting theories as to what really went down.  One, written by Yoichi Shimatsu (previously mentioned) is that Swartz in the server closet had stumbled over a massive child porn network being run through MIT.  That’s pretty far out.  Shimatsu, writing from Hong Kong, names one man who I won’t mention here, as it’s an open invitation for libel in this country.  Just read his article listed in my sources to find out who.

Never the less, for the authorities to go after Swartz like this does give the appearance of something more to the story, some behind the scenes machinations that Swartz stumbled upon.

I think the trouble with people such as Aaron Swartz, Gary Webb, or even Andrew Breitbart is they want to play ball with the Big Boys, speaking truth to power.  But they don’t have a backup plan. I would have a path of flight arranged with a packed bag, stay close to home, avoid strangers, and possibly have access to a weapon.  Being a public figure is no longer protection from serious harm.  And being paranoid for a person like a Swartz or a Breitbart could be healthy.  It’s not like these guys can ride in with the white hats on and win the day in a fair fight.  Do they really think the Big Boys wouldn’t dare to go after them?  

They are the untouchables my friends, not you.

Addendum 2/20/13
FBI tracked Aaron Swartz, new files show.  LINK

Addendum 2/6/13
Photos of server closet that Aaron Swartz is supposed to have used.

Addendum 1/26/13
On 1/25/13, U.S. Magistrate Judge Judith Dein tossed out the Russ Caswell motel case.  Yay!  LINK


Aaron Swartz web site with links.

Christian Stork.

Freedom Rider: The State Killing of Aaron Swartz by Margaret Kimberley.  A highly recommended read.

Yoichi Shimatsu.

Alleged downloads by Aaron Swartz.

Notes on his death.

Carmen Ortiz’s office doubles down.

Feds go overboard in prosecuting information activist.

Ortiz’s Husband makes snarky comments on Twitter.