Air files on Internet activist’s case, father asks

Deplores hacking in son’s memory

Aaron Swartz committed suicide in January while facing felony charges.
Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff/File
Aaron Swartz committed suicide in January while facing felony charges.

The father of the late internet activist Aaron Swartz called on MIT Tuesday to release documents related to the federal case against his son, while lamenting that hackers have repeatedly tried to harm computer networks in his son’s memory.

In his first extended interview with the Globe, Robert Swartz said MIT should make public all internal documents related to the case against his son, who committed suicide in January while facing felony charges that he had hacked into the JSTOR archive system on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s network.

Robert Swartz’s demand appeared to go further than a vow earlier Tuesday by MIT’s president, who said the university would provide internal documents in the federal case after personal and security information was removed. “We believe they should release all the documents related to this case and related to Aaron, whether or not those are given to the government,” Swartz said in a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon.


MIT president Rafael Reif had announced in an e-mail Tuesday morning that the university would release internal documents related to the case, following a demand by lawyers for Swartz’s estate. Reif said MIT would redact employee names and other identifying information, and said the university would make the documents public at the same time MIT releases a review of how it handled Swartz’s case. MIT has not set a date for the release for the review, which is being conducted by Hal Abelson, an MIT professor of computer science and engineering.

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Since Swartz committed suicide, his case has become a rallying point for Internet activists and civil libertarians who say prosecutors overreached in bringing federal charges against him. In recent weeks, MIT’s computer system has been hacked at least three times, and in late February, a hoax caller falsely reported there was a gunman on campus. MIT later disclosed that the caller said he was retaliating for Swartz’s death.

Swartz said that the hacks following his son’s death have been upsetting. “Obviously we are distressed by anything that is negative or destructive,” he said.

At the same time, he said, he was touched by the outpouring of support his family has received from people who knew his son. “We’re humbled and overwhelmed,” said Swartz, 63, who lives in Highland Park, Ill.

Swartz said that he has been in touch with members of Congress regarding the investigation into whether the prosecution went too far in his son’s case. He also said that his family has been considering ways to honor his son’s legacy, such as starting an organization that promotes free access to academic writings.


Swartz, 26, who cofounded the social news website Reddit, faced up to 35 years in prison for allegedly downloading more than 4 million articles, some of which were behind a paywall.

US prosecutors said they would not agree to a plea deal with Swartz unless he pleaded guilty to the felony charges and served a sentence of four to six months in prison. Swartz rejected the offer and was expected to stand trial in April.

In a motion Friday in federal court, lawyers for Swartz’s estate requested that the names and titles of all MIT and JSTOR employees in the case be released, as well as those of law enforcement officials. The Globe has reported that the documents are barred from public disclosure by a protective order.

“Both Congress and the public at large have an important role to play in determining what conduct is considered criminal, particularly in the relatively new and rapidly evolving context of so-called ‘computer crimes,’ ” lawyers Elliot R. Peters, Daniel Purcell, and Michael J. Pineault wrote in the motion.

A lawyer for Swartz’s estate could not be reached for comment Tuesday.


The Globe reported Saturday that the government and the defense agree that personal information — such as e-mail prefixes, phone numbers, and Social Security numbers — should be withheld. The estate’s lawyers argue that all other redactions are unnecessary.

Lawyers for Swartz’s estate stated that the redactions of some names and titles would make the “documents at issue materially less intelligible and thus far less useful to Congress or whoever might review them.”

But Reif wrote that the documents contain “information about vulnerabilities in MIT’s network,” as well as names of MIT employees who were involved with the case. Reif said he wants to strike a balance between the release of information in the case while protecting the privacy of individuals and security of the university.

“In the spirit of openness, balanced with responsibility, we will release the requested MIT documents, redacting employee names and identifying information as appropriate to protect their privacy, as well as redacting information about network vulnerabilities,” Reif wrote. “We will release these documents at the same time that we release Professor Abelson’s report. In this way, our own community and those outside can examine both these primary documents and Professor Abelson’s analysis, which he is now forming through a careful process that includes a review of this written material, as well as extensive in-person interviews.”

Reif noted that MIT has seen “a pattern of harassment and personal threats’’ since Swartz’s suicide. “In this volatile atmosphere, I have the responsibility to protect the privacy and safety of those members of our community who have become involved in this matter in the course of doing their jobs for MIT,” Reif wrote.

Katherine Landergan can be reached at klandergan@