The door to the network closet pops open and a slender figure enters, a bicycle helmet hanging at his side. He sheds his backpack and pulls out a cardboard box containing a small hard drive, then kneels out of frame. After about five minutes, he stands, turns off the lights and furtively exits the closet.
This scene, captured by a video camera hidden in a wiring closet at MIT, was the beginning of a probe that led to federal charges against the late coder and activist Aaron Swartz. The video, along with dozens of other documents related to the case, has been released to the public for the first time through my Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the U.S. Secret Service.
The video was made in January 2011, near the end of a months-long cat-and-mouse game between MIT personnel and a then-unknown user who’d been downloading millions of articles from a service called JSTOR, which provides searchable copies of academic journals online. MIT has a subscription that allows free access to students from MIT’s public network. Someone had been sporadically using that access to automatically download one article after another, at times so aggressively that JSTOR’s website was slowed.
On January 4, 2011, MIT technicians traced the downloads to the closet in the basement of Building 16. There they found an Acer laptop wired to MIT’s network and concealed under a box. They called the police, and after some discussion decided to leave the laptop in place so as not to alert the perpetrator. MIT technicians planted the IP camera to see who came back for it.
Those few minutes of glitchy video — capturing Swartz swapping hard drives on his stashed laptop — would prove fateful. After a second visit to the closet two days later, Swartz was arrested nearby and identified.
The JSTOR hack was not Swartz’s first experiment in liberating costly public documents. In 2008, the federal court system briefly allowed free access to its court records system, Pacer, which normally charged the public eight cents per page. Theoretically, the free access was only available from computers at 17 libraries across the country; Swartz used one of the library passwords to cycle sequentially through case numbers, requesting a new document from Pacer every three seconds, and uploading it to the cloud. Swartz pulled nearly 20 million pages of public court documents, which are now available for free on the Internet Archive.
The FBI investigated that hack, but in the end no charges were filed. Swartz wasn’t so lucky with the Secret Service, which handled the MIT investigation. With extensive cooperation from MIT, the case was pressed by federal prosecutors in Boston, who charged Swartz with computer and wire fraud. Swartz potentially faced seven years in prison if convicted at trial, though he rejected plea bargains of between four and six months in custody.
His jury trial was looming when Swartz took his own life in January, 2013.
MIT faced a firestorm of criticism in the wake of Swartz’s suicide. Critics, including Swartz’s family and prominent MIT alumni, said the institution betrayed its own principles by not advocating for less harsh treatment of Swartz.
Looking at the video, it’s easy to see what MIT and the Secret Service presumably saw — a furtive hacker going someplace he shouldn’t go, doing something he shouldn’t do.
But photos from the putative crime scene, also released by the Secret Service, add context missing from the video: a concrete support in the network closet is crammed with a jumble of Sharpie graffiti dating back to the early 1980s — earlier generations of hackers at the institution that invented hacking, going places they shouldn’t go, doing things they shouldn’t do, leaving their mark at the very spot where, on January 4, 2011, MIT lost its tolerance for such behavior.
The Secret Service has also released about 400 pages of documents about Swartz. All but 147 pages are copies of already-public court filings. The new material can be found here Update: 12.06.13 You can find all nine of the newly-released videos here, and the 177 photos here.
By Kevin Poulsen