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MIT says hoax motivated by Swartz death

The caller who made unfounded claims that a gunman was on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s campus last weekend said the target was the university’s president and that he was motivated by the suicide of Web activist Aaron Swartz, according to a letter from a top MIT official.

In the note to the MIT community, Israel Ruiz, the school’s executive vice president and treasurer, addressed the hoax, the police response, and what is next for the institution.

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“At 7:35 a.m., the caller identified MIT president Rafael Reif as the target and said that the alleged gunman was heading towards the administration offices,” wrote Ruiz. “At 7:37 a.m., the caller indicated that the alleged gunman was retaliating against people involved in the suicide of Aaron Swartz.”

A spokesman from MIT, and Cambridge police, confirmed on Wednesday that the caller stated that Swartz’s death was the motivation behind the hoax.

The MIT community was alerted to the potential gunman at 8:52 a.m., over an hour after the call was made to Cambridge police.

“We should have alerted the community about the threat much more quickly and that the communication protocols we had in place did not meet the community’s reasonable expectations,” wrote Ruiz.

The fake call came into Cambridge police at about 7:30 a.m. on Feb. 23. The caller, still unknown to authorities, used a Sprint relay message service, which is designed for people with hearing or speech impediments, and talked with a dispatcher for more than 18 minutes, the letter said.

“One minute into the communication, the caller reported someone with a ‘really big gun,’ and ‘armor’ who was ‘getting out of control,’ ” Ruiz wrote. “Within two minutes of being notified, the first MIT police units entered Building 7.”

Ruiz commended the police response to the incident, but said the university has revised its communication procedures so alerts can be sent out to the community within minutes.

The MIT official pointed out the hoax could have led to serious accidental injuries as heavily armed police searched the campus for a gunman that never existed.

“This hoax also involved a malicious allegation against a member of our community and direct threats of physical harm to MIT staff,” he said. “We should all understand that this is not a game.”

Ruiz also wrote that the university would be refreshing everyone’s knowledge and comprehension of safety protocols. Briefings by the Security and Emergency Management Office will begin next week and be available for the MIT community, he said.

The Globe reported this week that the FBI and Secret Service confirmed on Monday that they have joined the Cambridge and MIT police departments to aid in the investigation.

Dan Riviello, a spokesman for Cambridge police, said no further information could be released regarding the investigation besides that confirmation that Swartz was mentioned in the call.

Swartz, a Web entrepreneur and political activist who was charged with hacking into MIT’s network and downloading millions of documents from a subscription-based archive, committed suicide in January.

In July 2011, he was charged in US District Court in Boston for the alleged hacking of JSTOR on MIT’s network in 2010.

Authorities claimed Swartz planned to distribute the documents for free on file-sharing websites. According to court documents, he pleaded not guilty to the charges. In the weeks since his suicide, MIT’s computer systems have been hacked several times in an apparent protest by activists upset about Swartz’s death and the efforts to prosecute him.

Derek J. Anderson can be reached at derek.anderson@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, this story incorrectly said the FBI had confirmed it was part of the investigation. Although Cambridge police said the FBI was involved, the federal agency did not confirm that.

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