MIT never asked for a role in the tragic story of Aaron Swartz, but it played one anyway — as documented in a long-awaited internal report on the case. In early 2011, the brilliant but troubled computer hacker broke into a closet at the university, where he set up a laptop to download millions of academic journal articles. Swartz, a fellow at Harvard at the time, was arrested by MIT police. The arrest set in motion a chain of events with awful consequences: Federal officials got wind of the break-in; Swartz was charged with felony computer crimes under a law widely criticized for its breadth; deeply depressed and facing years in prison, he committed suicide in January.
Since Swartz’s death, MIT has faced a torrent of angry criticism. The report, prepared by a committee led by computer science professor Hal Abelson, details a string of fateful decisions that were made in good faith and are defensible individually, but still led to a dreadful outcome. MIT, which was understandably wary of standing up for a non-student who abused its computer systems, stood by passively as federal prosecutors overreacted to what could have been treated as a minor case.