Aaron Swartz, a brilliant young programmer and political activist, lurked on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus for more than three months in late 2010 and the early days of 2011, allegedly downloading 4.8 million articles from an academic journal archive called JSTOR as the university and the archive tried to stop him. After MIT sought help from the police, Swartz was arrested and charged with federal computer crimes that could have put him in jail for years. He committed suicide in January 2013.
Swartz presented a grave dilemma to both MIT and JSTOR, forcing officials at both institutions to try to balance a security threat against their values celebrating openness and exploration. Internal documents, released by the two organizations after Swartz’s death, help tell the story of how a tragedy unfolded. Read the story
More related links and documents: Full set of documents released by MIT | Full set of documents released by JSTOR | MIT's internal report on the Swartz case | Blog entry in which Swartz shared his view of MIT as a haven for rebelliousness
October 10, 2010
A series of emails illustrates JSTOR's alarm after discovering Swartz's second round of downloading, which threatened the functioning of the archive's website. JSTOR officials considered seeking help from law enforcement, which they ultimately did not pursue.
October 12, 2010
An Information Systems & Technology employee at MIT shared thoughts about the circumstances around the extreme downloading of JSTOR articles after a second breach was discovered several days earlier. The author questioned why there was not better security on library databases like JSTOR, and believed the MIT Libraries had hardened their attitude towards misuse.
October 17, 2010
One of the emails in this chain describes concerns that some resources on the MIT network have poor security. Another email describes the "enablers" on MIT's unusually open network that allowed Swartz to avoid detection.
October 17, 2010
Tensions mounted between MIT and JSTOR as the two organizations sought to stop the downloading of hundreds of thousands of articles. One JSTOR employee in this chain wrote that MIT was being cooperative, but another called the university tepid and nonchalant.
January 4, 2011
JSTOR employees discovered a new round of downloading by Swartz on December 26. MIT employees, out on a furlough, did not find out for several days, but greeted the news with alarm and a call to escalate the university's response.
January 5, 2011
These handwritten notes were taken by an MIT library employee from a conversation with an MIT security analyst. They describe the discovery of Swartz's laptop on January 4, 2011, and the beginning of the law enforcement investigation. The notes describe MIT's cooperation with authorities: "We [MIT] are considered the victim. All we provide is by choice -- not subpoenaed."
January 10, 2011
A few days after Swartz's arrest, he took to Twitter to ask his followers if they knew anyone at JSTOR, presumably hoping he could use a personal connection to defuse the situation. An MIT employee riffed off Swartz's Twitter message with an imaginary tweet purporting to describe what Swartz wanted to say to JSTOR.
January 13, 2011
These emails illustrate one MIT employee's eagerness to help investigators, prodding JSTOR to provide information that the author intended to share with law enforcement.