After his son was arrested for downloading files at MIT, Bob Swartz did everything in his power to save him. He couldn’t. Now he wants the institute to own up to its part in Aaron’s death.
There was a point, during the two years of legal proceedings that would overtake, and then shatter, both of their lives, when Bob Swartz and his son Aaron found themselves with a bit of free time. They had arrived at the Federal Reserve building, in Boston, to meet Aaron’s lawyer—one of dozens of meetings Bob would arrange in hopes of fending off the 13 felony counts against his son. But they were early, so they took a walk.
Aaron was Bob’s first child, the oldest of three boys, and he was a fragile, thoughtful kid from the very beginning. Growing up, Aaron and his brothers, Noah and Ben, had unfettered access to the nascent Internet, creating and coding projects of their own design. Evenings were spent building robots with Legos, playing Myst or Magic: The Gathering. Dinner-table conversations might concern the merits of a particular font, or Edward Tufte’s theories of information. “It was a house of ideas,” Bob says.
Aaron taught himself to read at age three, and became bored with school shortly thereafter. By ninth grade he became an anti-school activist, arguing that rote drills and homework assignments couldn’t teach kids how to think. Instead, he chose to be “unschooled,” documenting his progress on a blog he called Schoolyard Subversion. “He lived more of his life online than he did with his friends,” Bob says. “There was a degree of alienation that occurred, especially as he got older. He was working on the Internet and that was sort of terra incognita.” But Aaron found a network of friends online—many far older than he—who shared his interest in the future of the Web. Bob understood his dark-eyed, curious son’s enthusiasms. They spent time together in their Highland Park home, bonding over books as Aaron mowed through the family’s canon. One summer, they cataloged several thousand of their books according to the Library of Congress classification system. One night a fight erupted over standards. Aaron won.
Another time, Bob took Aaron to the Crerar Library at the University of Chicago, just as his own father had once taken him. Bob led Aaron through the stacks, pulled a book off the shelf, and cradled it in his hands. It was from the 1800s, a marvel. He told his son libraries were portals into the knowledge of the world.
Whenever Aaron needed advice, his father would share an insight from life or literature. “You always answer things in stories,” Aaron would say. That afternoon, as Bob and Aaron circled the block, they discussed the events of the past few months—Aaron’s arrest, when he was forced to the pavement; his strip search and solitary confinement upon arraignment; the increasingly circuitous route the U.S. Attorney’s Office was taking in negotiating the charges; their legal fees, which would soon clear $1 million; the looming felony conviction that Aaron feared. Aaron said he felt as though he’d been living in a version of The Trial, Kafka’s classic novel, which follows the incoherent prosecution of a defendant named Josef K.
Aaron had read the story in 2011, shortly after his arrest, and called it “deep and magnificent” on his blog. “I’d not really read much Kafka before and had grown up led to believe that it was a paranoid and hyperbolic work,” he wrote. Instead, he’d found it “precisely accurate—every single detail perfectly mirrored my own experience. This isn’t fiction, but documentary.”
Bob had admired Kafka, but didn’t remember the plot of The Trial. He asked Aaron to remind him how the story ended.
Aaron just stared at him.
“They killed K., Dad,” Aaron told him. “They killed him.”
Just a few months later, on January 11, 2013, nearly two years from the date when he was first arrested by a Secret Service agent in Central Square, Aaron Swartz hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment. He was 26 years old.
MIT may be the world’s most prestigious engineering school, with touchscreen maps installed in its building lobbies, but it remains a remarkably difficult place to navigate. To find room 485 in the Media Lab building, you pass through a series of silver double doors, then skirt a workshop where a garden of mechanical flowers gleam purple and silver under iridescent lights. There are no bumper stickers or flyers taped to the hall window of room 485; the blinds are closed. The only sign it’s occupied at all is the magnetic poetry on the door. Most of the tiles are a random scramble, but nine have been arranged to form the lines:Construct the future to be better for your children.
Bob Swartz is inside.
Bob has kind brown eyes and a brow crowned with gray fuzz. He wears a striped button-down shirt, khakis, a brown belt, a Tag Heuer watch with a simple brown leather strap, and sensible shoes. He swivels in his chair with one leg tucked underneath him. The room is small, only about 10 by 14 feet, but there are seven office chairs. “This is where the chairs hang out,” he jokes. There is weariness in his voice. “I feel bad putting them out in the hall.”
Bob lives in Highland Park, Illinois. For more than a decade, he has traveled to the MIT campus each month to consult on intellectual-property aspects of Media Lab creations. After Aaron’s arrest, these trips took on a new urgency: He had to file motions, meet with attorneys, plead with MIT administrators. Now, in the wake of his son’s death, coming here has become an exercise in grief.
“I see Aaron on every corner,” he says. “I pass by the building. I see MIT police. I remember, I remember him…” he sighs. “We spent a lot of time here. There are all sorts of painful aspects of what happened. They come back.”
In January 2011, just a few blocks from where Bob sits, Aaron was arrested for downloading 4 million copyrighted articles from JSTOR, an online archive of academic journals (JSTOR stands for Journal Storage). JSTOR charges libraries as much as $50,000 in yearly subscription fees to access its archive, but at the time, MIT’s open-network policy meant any visitor to campus could take advantage of MIT’s subscription privileges by using a guest login. Even so, Aaron was charged with excessive and unauthorized access to the university’s network under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).
United States Attorney Carmen Ortiz, in the midst of a prosecutorial tear that would lead the Globe to name her 2011’s Bostonian of the Year, held up Aaron’s indictment as a warning to hackers everywhere: “Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data, or dollars,” she said at the time. “It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away.”
In fact, Aaron faced stiffer maximum penalties than if he had used a crowbar: 35 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million. “I said to him, ‘I’ll use every sinew in my body and every synapse in my brain to get you out of this mess,’” Bob says.
Bob pleaded with MIT’s administrators and lawyers to intervene. Joi Ito, the Media Lab’s director, also petitioned the university to consider it a “family matter” and speak up regarding the charges of Aaron having “unauthorized access” on a campus where anyone, anywhere, could log into the JSTOR system—or any library database—with a simple Ethernet connection. But instead, MIT took a position of “neutrality.” It made no public statements for or against Aaron’s prosecution or about whether he should be imprisoned. This is the other reason why Bob’s visits to MIT are so painful: He can’t walk through campus without feeling that MIT betrayed his son.
“I always felt that MIT would act in a reasonable and compassionate way and that MIT wasn’t the issue,” Bob says. “I didn’t understand the depths of what MIT had done at that point.”
Bob has developed a routine during his Cambridge visits. He rooms at the Kendall Hotel. In the evenings, he’ll stroll to Emma’s for a pizza, or visit the Coop bookshop in Harvard Square. Some days he eats at Legal Sea Foods, where he often overhears drug developers debating the risk of funding new research. This bothers him. He believes people should be willing to take risks, to try and to fail, and that through failure comes change and invention.
“It all came from my father,” Bob says.
Bob’s father, William Swartz, was a successful Chicago businessman who parlayed his wealth into social activism. He founded the Albert Einstein Peace Prize Foundation, and was active with Pugwash, the nuclear disarmament group that won the Nobel Prize when Aaron was eight. Through Pugwash, William befriended Jerome “Jerry” Wiesner, the 13th president of MIT and a cofounder of the Media Lab. When Bob was a teenager, his father would send him to pick up Wiesner at the airport when he came to town. “Jerry had an incredible heart about things and was just an extraordinary human being,” Bob says. In his memories, Wiesner embodied all that MIT stood for: compassion and creativity, challenging authority, and pure scientific inquiry.
Bob was never accepted to MIT—his dyslexia led to mediocre grades in high school—but he convinced the university to let him complete some undergrad and graduate work there as a special student in the math department. He arrived just as MIT was beginning to embrace, and celebrate, its hacker ethos. At MIT, a hack can mean benignly breaking into a computer system, but it can also mean breaking into the university’s underground network of tunnels, inflating MIT balloons during the Harvard-Yale game, or measuring bridges in Smoots.
“Hacking was investigating a subject for its own sake and not for academic advancement, exploring inaccessible places on campus, doing something clandestine or out of the ordinary, or performing pranks,” wrote Brian Leibowitz, editor of The Journal of the Institute for Hacks, TomFoolery, and Pranks at MIT. What started as a series of stunts evolved into elegant acts of cunning that have come to define the institution’s values. “Hackers believe that essential lessons can be learned about the systems—about the world—from taking things apart, seeing how they work, and using this knowledge to create new and even more interesting things,” Steven Levy writes in Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. “They resent any person, physical barrier, or law that tries to keep them from doing this.”
Bob’s eyes brighten when he’s asked about his own history of hacks. He says nothing, but just offers a sly grin; it’s the same smile he passed along to his son.
In time, Bob took over his father’s business and adapted it into a software company. He married and raised three boys of his own, who picked up his penchant for computing. “Before the World Wide Web existed, we were using the Internet,” Bob says. “We all understood very early on that the Internet was going to change everything.”
Aaron began to teach himself simple computer programs while still in elementary school. When he was 12, he accompanied Bob to MIT and sat in on Philip Greenspun’s Web-development class. “I was so excited by the class that I immediately went home and tried to make something,” Aaron wrote to a friend years later.
Even then, Aaron saw the Web as a platform for freely sharing. A year before Wikipedia launched, he built an open-source encyclopedia, which he submitted to Greenspun’s ArsDigita contest for teen programmers. As a finalist, he met the inventor of the Web, MIT professor Tim Berners-Lee. He followed that up by coauthoring some of the first codes for RSS feeds, at age 14; working on the frameworks for Creative Commons with famed Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig, at 15; and helping to build the website Reddit, the sale of which made him a millionaire a week before his 20th birthday.
Like his father, Aaron was never an MIT student—he had done a brief stint at Stanford, but found it intellectually lacking. Instead, he worked with Lessig as a Safra fellow in Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and began to focus on the political potential of his coding skills. He cofounded Demand Progress, an activist group that railed against Internet censorship. He juggled projects on open access, rethinking copyright restrictions, and ending corporate corruption, and had coauthored a Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, which argued that public access to scholarly journals was a moral imperative. Aaron approached every stage in his life with an unbridled idealism. Whenever he grew frustrated or disappointed, Bob always encouraged him to learn from failure. Aaron’s goal, he says, was simply to “make the world better.”
Aaron lived in Central Square, moving fluidly between Harvard and MIT’s campus. At MIT, he visited friends and family, including his brothers, who interned at the Media Lab. Aaron’s girlfriend at the time, Quinn Norton, described his familiarity with MIT: Aaron “had a history of hacking,” she said in an interview with MIT after his death. Sometimes when she’d call him he’d tell her, “Can’t talk now, in the middle of breaking into a building at MIT with a bunch of students.”
“It was a fun place where he could do that,” she said. “And I think he did it at MIT because it was in the spirit of the things that he did, and other people he knew did, at MIT.”
Norton told MIT that Aaron was in the habit of gathering big data sets, and that she’d helped him scrape millions of books in the public domain from Google Books: “It was a game. He was a data pack rat…He really loved mashing them with scripts and going through and analyzing them and trying to pull stuff out of them.… I think that he somewhat reasonably thought that if MIT didn’t like it they’d just tell him to stop.”
Aaron was a child of the Internet, and as news of his suicide began to filter online, the Web heaved in mourning. Berners-Lee took to Twitter: “Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.” Larry Lessig ended his online requiem with “I will always love you, sweet boy. Please find the peace you were seeking. And if you do, please find a way to share that too.”
The Swartz family released a more pointed statement. “Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy,” it read. “Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death…. MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.” At Aaron’s funeral, Bob was even more raw. “Aaron did not commit suicide but was killed by the government,” he said, making headlines worldwide, adding, “We tried and tried to get MIT to help and show compassion…[but] their institutional concerns were more important.”
In March, Bob made his way back to campus for Aaron’s memorial service. He wrote the words he would speak that day in his office in the Media Lab building. Dressed in a dark-gray suit, he stood at the podium and cited the work of other digital visionaries who flouted the law: Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and the founder of Polaroid, Edwin Land. “These people did exactly what MIT told them to do, they colored outside the lines…but today’s MIT destroys those kinds of people,” he said.
Now it’s summer, and the August sunlight filters in through his office window. Back in January, MIT asked professor Hal Abelson, a leader in the open-access movement, to lead an investigation into MIT’s role in Aaron’s death, and this is the first time Bob has been on campus since the report’s release a few days earlier. Abelson interviewed dozens of people: Aaron’s friends and family, law enforcement officials, Aaron’s attorneys, MIT’s attorneys, and two sets of administrative officials at MIT (Susan Hockfield’s departure as president would lead to an administrative overhaul and a do-si-do of new appointments). The university’s administrators had held off his requests for meetings until it was completed, but just yesterday, he’d been able to sit down with MIT’s president, L. Rafael Reif, for nearly an hour. He was heartened to see a portrait of Jerry Wiesner over Reif’s desk. He told the president that the questions associated with Aaron’s death go to the soul of MIT. “There was a complete lack of compassion in the way that they handled the case,” he says now. “And that is the tragedy. And to the extent that that doesn’t change, MIT will have completely lost its way.”
It was supposed to be the work of a ghost. In late 2010, after creating the fake user profile Gary Host—shortened to “ghost” on the email login—Aaron began downloading files from JSTOR. Sometime in November, he left a laptop hidden in a basement utility closet in MIT’s Building 16, where it could conceivably continue to download for days without notice.
When JSTOR noticed the bulk downloads, it blocked the ghost email address, and notified MIT. But the downloading continued, and JSTOR locked MIT out of its archives. On January 4, 2011, campus police found the laptop in the closet and called Cambridge police. The detective who took the call was also a member of the New England Electronic Crimes Task Force, which includes representatives from the U.S. Secret Service. In short time, a host of officers descended on campus. They were unsure of what exactly was under way, but they suspected an international breach: When the Secret Service arrived, Bob says, the first thing they asked was whether any of the university’s classified research was threatened.
Officers placed a video camera in the closet, while the Secret Service agent on the case, Michael Pickett, asked the school’s Information Services & Technology staff for relevant electronic records. Without a subpoena, attorneys in MIT’s Office of the General Counsel released the materials to Pickett.
The suspect returned to the closet later that afternoon, but when MIT police arrived he was gone. Only the camera saw him: a lean young man with dark, shoulder-length wavy hair, wearing a dark coat, a gray backpack, and jeans, and carrying a white bike helmet. Two days later, after those images had been distributed to MIT police, campus officers were alerted that someone had entered the closet yet again. They watched via video feed as their suspect removed the laptop, this time with a bike helmet obscuring his face. Later that day, MIT police captain Albert Pierce spotted a young man who resembled the suspect biking through campus on Vassar Street.
Pierce followed the suspect north on Mass. Ave. through Central Square, eventually overtaking him just past the intersection. He called for backup, and another MIT officer and Special Agent Pickett quickly responded. Pierce pulled up alongside the cyclist, showing him his badge and ID. The suspect said he didn’t talk to strangers and that Pierce wasn’t a “real cop,” then ditched his bicycle, taking off toward Central Square. Pierce tried to chase him on foot, but returned to his car. By then, the other officers had arrived, and the two cars followed the suspect onto Lee Street.
Aaron Swartz was apprehended on a quiet block about a mile from MIT’s campus, in front of a row of stately three-story townhomes. Special Agent Pickett put him in handcuffs. He was charged with breaking and entering in the daytime and with intent to commit a felony. He was just a few blocks from home.
Bob was walking off a plane in San Francisco when his wife, Susan, called him with the news: “Aaron has been arrested at MIT.” Bob called Aaron immediately. He said he’d been roughed up, that officers took his bike, backpack, and laptop. “He sounded scared,” Bob remembers.
Bob was alarmed, but this wasn’t Aaron’s first brush with the law. Four years earlier, the FBI had investigated Aaron for a bulk download of the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) website, a government-run court archive. The open-government activist Carl Malamud believed that public documents should be free to the public, and encouraged activists to liberate the files through a free trial PACER was offering libraries. Aaron told Malamud that he’d written a script that could make downloads outside the library network, but Malamud told him to stick to the appropriate channels. Aaron went ahead and used his script anyway, downloading some 2.7 million files.
That time, Aaron warned his parents the FBI might pay them a visit. Bob and Susan were upset, but tried not to show it. “I wanted him to understand that he had our support,” Bob says. “It didn’t seem to us that screaming and yelling at him was productive, so we didn’t.”
The FBI and the Department of Justice did send a surveillance team to the Swartz home, but never brought charges. Malamud and Aaron had not broken any laws, and besides, their mass downloads exposed glaring privacy gaps where the government had failed to redact Social Security numbers, names of informants, and other problematic information from the files. As Bob recalls, “It kind of came and went.”
This time felt different. A few weeks after his arrest, law enforcement told Aaron he could come pick up the possessions they had confiscated. Aaron called Bob: “Dad, will you come with me to pick up my bike?” he asked.
“Of course,” Bob said.
Bob and Aaron walked to the Vassar Street headquarters of the MIT police. As they sat in the station, looking through bullet-proof glass, “It was like, what are we doing here?” Bob remembers. Aaron was miserable and depressed. The MIT cops returned his helmet, backpack, and bicycle, but kept a USB drive that he had used for the downloads. “Now it’s up to the Secret Service,” Bob remembers the cop saying.
“The two of us looked at each other and said, ‘This is a lot more serious than we thought.’”
In open-access corners of the Internet, Aaron’s fellow hackers still search for an answer: What had he planned to do with the downloaded files? Most acts of civil disobedience are done publicly, without ghost logins or hidden laptops. Aaron could have done his downloading in the open: MIT’s open-network policies at the time allowed anyone visiting campus to access services like JSTOR. That openness, coupled with the university’s celebrated history of hacker culture, could have led Aaron to think he’d be more likely to be chastised than indicted. But it doesn’t explain why he resorted to clandestine maneuvers.
Only Lessig, who for a short time served as Aaron’s lawyer, has said he knows for certain what Aaron’s plan was. But he’s not sharing. Instead, he has dropped coy hints. In a lecture at Harvard shortly after Aaron’s death, he floated possible scenarios. In one, Aaron was planning to release the files to third-world countries. Another theory: He planned to analyze the data to search for evidence of corrupt science, just as he had done with a legal database under Lessig’s guidance at Stanford.
To Bob, the latter explanation seems more likely. “There was one conversation we had where he indicated that the goal of these documents was to do a meta analysis of them,” Bob says. “He described, similarly, looking at funding associated with the documents.”
But the reasons didn’t matter in the end, he says. He knows they hardly mattered to the prosecution.
The real question is this: Did Aaron know, that fall, the danger he was putting himself in?
“There was no question in my mind he understood how this had gone terribly awry, and he was very upset about it,” Bob says. “We didn’t need to have those conversations as to why he did it, or what was going through his head, because that wasn’t the question.”
There’s a story he told Aaron then, just after the arrest. “Look at my hand,” he said to his son, pointing to a scar in the webbing between his index and middle fingers. “When I was a student, I was working in the darkroom at New College, and I was putting a rubber stopper into a glass tube. And every time I put in the rubber stopper the glass tube shattered, and I said to myself, You know, I’m going to put that glass tube through my hand, but I persisted, and I put that glass tube through my hand. And I went to Sarasota Memorial Hospital and the doctor there was not the best and he sewed back my finger and he left that web in my hand. Because I should have stopped—I knew.”
Stephen Heymann, the lead attorney on Aaron’s case, is known for his steadfast, inflexible approach to his prosecutions. He comes from a distinguished legal background: His father, Philip Heymann, is a Harvard Law professor who worked as a Watergate prosecutor. Philip Heymann also served as deputy attorney general in the Clinton White House, where he befriended Ortiz and Eric Holder, who would later become attorney general.
The younger Heymann has made a name for himself pioneering the prosecution of computer crimes within the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts. For nearly three decades, he has defended the laws outlined by the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and as the chief of the Cybercrime Unit within the U.S. Attorney’s Office, he oversaw the first court-authorized electronic surveillance of a computer network. In 2000 he worked on the case against Jonathan James, a 16-year-old who had breached NASA’s network. James became the first juvenile sent to a prison for hacking crimes.
The CFAA was Congress’s hysterical reaction to WarGames, the 1983 film in which a teenage Matthew Broderick hacks into NORAD’s nuclear arsenal. The aim was to protect U.S. bank and defense computers from international cyber threats, but as the Internet has evolved over the past three decades, so has the CFAA. The Justice Department has extended its scope and now uses it to bring charges for a wide range of online infractions, some as trivial as lying on one’s MySpace page.
Heymann’s work to enforce the CFAA has also helped to shape it. In 1994 he led the prosecution of MIT student David LaMacchia, who was charged with using the university’s networks to copy $1 million worth of software, which he then posted online for others to use. Like Swartz, LaMacchia faced jail time and felony charges. Unlike Swartz, his case was thrown out by a judge, who deemed his actions “heedlessly irresponsible” but let LaMacchia off because he showed no intent to profit from his actions.
In legal circles, this Robin Hood approach to software distribution became known as the LaMacchia Loophole. In 1997 Congress passed a law that strengthened criminal punishment for copyright infringement, even if the owner did not intend to make a profit. The measure was an early predecessor to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) legislation that was floated in Congress in 2011—legislation that Aaron campaigned against, and which was eventually quashed.
For Bob and Aaron, Heymann was the face of the state. Aaron’s attorneys approached Heymann shortly after Aaron’s arrest, asking him to drop the charges. The meetings did not go well; Heymann refused to accept a settlement that did not involve jail time. At an impasse with Heymann, Bob and Aaron approached JSTOR. The company was much more open to negotiation, and in June 2011, the sides reached a civil settlement. Aaron paid a $26,500 fine. A spokesman said JSTOR considered the case closed: “We [have] no interest in this becoming an ongoing legal matter.”
Nonetheless, the criminal case slouched forward undeterred. As Aaron’s indictment neared, Heymann offered him a plea deal: If he agreed to one felony count, he could get three months in jail, followed by a period of probation and time in a halfway house.
Negotiations continued, but in the end Aaron told Heymann no. He would fight the felony charges and go to trial.
Later, Heymann would tell MIT that he was “dumbfounded” by Aaron’s decision, and claimed that Aaron was “systematically re-victimizing” the university by choosing to go through proceedings. Publicly criticizing MIT at a trial, Heymann said, was akin to “attacking a rape victim based on sleeping with other men.”
In the ensuing months, Aaron was banned from the Harvard and MIT campuses. Secret Service agents tore apart his apartment. Heymann subpoenaed Aaron’s girlfriend, Quinn Norton, to give grand jury testimony. That was bad enough, but even before the jury convened, Norton agreed to meet with Heymann—against Aaron’s pleas. Norton would say later that she thought she could talk Heymann into dropping the prosecution. Instead, he grilled her until he had what he needed: Norton mentioned that Aaron had coauthored the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto (remarkably, the prosecution had failed to read through the blog posts of the Internet activist they had intended to charge). For Heymann, this was a key piece of evidence: It established a motive.
Aaron was devastated. If Norton hadn’t met with Heymann, he believed, the prosecutor might never have found the manifesto for himself. He was furious. And more, Norton would tell an MIT investigator later, he was terrified “that anyone that talked to him would be treated like I was, so he didn’t talk to anyone…. I considered myself radioactive, he considered both of us radioactive—anyone we talked to could suddenly be pulled into this nightmare.”
Bob believes that Norton’s cooperation with the prosecutors was a betrayal that left Aaron bereft. The couple’s relationship dissolved shortly thereafter.
A few days before the indictment, Aaron’s attorney called the U.S. Attorney’s Office and agreed that Aaron would voluntarily surrender. But Bob says the prosecutors insisted on arresting him: “They strip-searched him. They took away his shoelaces. They put him in solitary confinement and left him there. They brought him out in handcuffs. And then, after his bond was posted, they left him in a cell for a couple of hours, with no explanation. It was just sadistic.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office holds that it did not take the previous FBI investigation into account when it made the decision to prosecute Aaron, but Aaron’s activist ties did seem to strike a chord. On the day of his indictment, Aaron sent 11 tweets, many of which linked to an article on the Demand Progress site that shared details of his case. This “wild Internet campaign” was a “foolish” move that shifted the case “from a human one-on-one level to an institutional level,” Heymann would say later.
Aaron was charged with wire fraud, computer fraud, and “unlawfully obtaining information from” and “recklessly damaging” a “protected computer.” There would be 13 felony counts in all. At the time of the indictment, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said he could face 35 years in prison.
Aaron had ulcerative colitis, and his family feared that his health would deteriorate if he went to prison. He was growing increasingly depressed. “The endless plea negotiations, discussions of jail, what jail to go to, what the halfway house was going to be like…they were torture,” Bob says. “They were torture for me but far more torture for Aaron. He couldn’t deal. I dealt with the legal aspects of the case because it was very hard for him to do that. And, you know, it destroyed his feelings of security.”
In an interview in December, Carmen Ortiz’s first assistant attorney, Jack Pirozzolo, spoke with me about the case. “Steve [Heymann] is a cautious, careful prosecutor…. He has taken the tragedy of Mr. Swartz’s suicide very hard. We as prosecutors have a job to do. We follow the evidence wherever it leads and recommend charges based on the evidence and the applicable law. In this case, the evidence of criminal conduct led to Mr. Swartz, and I don’t think there can be much debate about that,” he told me. He holds that the rule of law must be applied regardless of someone’s talents, stature, or political beliefs. “As far as I am aware, Congress hasn’t told us that there is a certain set of rules for MIT students and another set for everyone else…. A person’s affiliation with MIT or Harvard does not bestow immunity from the consequences of breaking the law…. Mr. Swartz was obviously a talented guy, but our system can’t work if we apply a set of rules to one group of people and not another because we approve of their talents. There is, in some sense, a breathtaking double standard that’s being applied here.”
To Bob, Heymann’s actions went beyond the duties of a prosecutor.
“He clearly doesn’t have a sense of what he’s doing to people,” Bob says of Heymann. “And this isn’t the first time.”
The pressure that Aaron was under was not unique. In 2008, Jonathan James, the juvenile hacker Heymann had convicted in 2000 at the age of 16, found himself again under suspicion. At the time, Heymann was leading an investigation into the largest identity-theft ring in U.S. history, and James was implicated. He was never charged, but Secret Service agents ransacked his home and put a tracking device on his car.
On May 18 of that year, he was found dead in his home from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. In his suicide note, he wrote that he’d become convinced that he would be scapegoated as a key member of the hacker ring because of his past conviction. “The feds play dirty,” he wrote.
The relationship between Heymann and MIT was complicated, and only came to light much later.
Abelson’s 182-page report, released in July, provides a remarkable glimpse of a university wrestling with its public persona. And while the report would ultimately find that MIT was justified in its neutral stance, the university often appears incurious and callous in its pages.
For example: Just days after JSTOR first noticed Aaron’s bulk download and notified MIT, an MIT Information Systems & Technology staffer wrote an email explaining that the university did not require user authentication to access JSTOR. Yet the bulk of the allegations against Aaron dealt with him “exceeding authorized access” to the MIT network under the CFAA. “At no time, either before or after the arrest of Aaron Swartz, did anyone from the prosecution inquire as to whether Aaron Swartz had authorized access to the MIT network,” Abelson wrote. When it came to the most fundamental question in the case—was Aaron authorized to access MIT’s network or not?—MIT maintains that the feds simply never asked.
And MIT never spoke up.
MIT has maintained that its policy in Aaron’s case was to remain neutral—which in practice meant, “do nothing.” This was not without precedent. MIT had taken a similar stance when its students had tangled with law enforcement, and Aaron was not even a student.
Bob maintains that in Aaron’s case, MIT’s “neutrality” was in fact an abdication. By its silence, Bob says, the administration betrayed its mission. MIT has consistently sold itself as a leader on open access to scholarship—its professors create and share curricula over OpenCourseWare, and in 2009, they voted to make all of their scholarly articles available on the Web. Even as Heymann pursued Aaron for downloading millions of journal articles on MIT’s campus, the university was touting the launch of MITx, a program that would provide free online courses to millions of students around the world.
While claiming neutrality, MIT’s IS & T employees initially handed over many records to Heymann without a subpoena. Even later, Heymann and the Secret Service were permitted to call or email any staffer at will, an unusual privilege. In those exchanges, MIT staffers, either wittingly or unwittingly, helped Heymann build his case. What MIT describes as neutrality looks to Bob an awful lot like complicity with the prosecution. Abelson seemed to agree, writing that MIT’s dispassionate approach, in fact, “was not neutral in outcomes.”
Another key question in the prosecution’s case was determining damages. MIT staff tallied up more than $5,000 worth of man-hours lost and “out-of-pocket costs,” bumping the allegations into felony territory. But Abelson found that MIT padded the number: By his calculations, the university’s only expenses were the cost of installing the video camera and making photocopies for the prosecution.
More examples of MIT’s complicity turned up in files that Aaron’s defense team obtained from the feds during discovery. When the Secret Service had trouble accessing Aaron’s computer, it contacted MIT for help, emails show. The IS & T staff helpfully explained how to hack into it. Then there’s the chummy note from an IS & T security analyst who had worked closely with the Secret Service. On the day Aaron was indicted, the analyst emailed Heymann: “Nicely done Steve and kudos! …it’s just a true relief and very refreshing to see your accuracy and precision.”
“They call this neutrality,” Bob says.
Abelson’s report also chronicles Bob’s ordeal. From the time of the indictment through the end of 2011, Abelson found, Bob tried to persuade MIT to change its stance. He tried, and failed, to get Aaron an appointment at the Media Lab, in the hopes that it would garner him university support. Aaron’s attorneys reached out to MIT to attempt to reach a settlement, but MIT rebuffed them. Bob pleaded: “Why are you destroying my son?”
In fall of 2011, Bob’s wife, Susan Swartz, fell severely ill. Bob pulled back from the legal proceedings to focus on tending to her, and Aaron changed lawyers. In spring of 2012, Aaron’s new attorneys tried in vain to schedule an appointment with MIT to discuss a plea initiative. Twelve calls went unanswered from May through September.
In September 2012, Bob again asked MIT to publicly state that it did not want jail time for Aaron. It refused. The university’s general counsel told Abelson they believed publicly backing Aaron would actually hurt his case.
Tensions at MIT heightened in October after Aaron’s lawyers filed a motion alleging the university was “acting in concert” with the prosecution, violating federal law and Aaron’s Fourth Amendment rights protecting him from unreasonable search and seizure. The motion sought to suppress the indictment and all information gathered during the investigation. MIT was afraid its employees might have to defend themselves on the stand, which Abelson concluded served to further align the university’s interests with the prosecution.
In the dwindling months of 2012, as both sides began to prep for hearings and it became increasingly apparent that Aaron’s case would go to trial, squabbles over documents erupted. MIT continued to provide materials to Heymann’s office under subpoena, but Heymann was not sharing them with the defense; when Aaron’s lawyers asked MIT to send copies of the same documents, MIT’s counsel referred them to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Bob soon came to believe that Heymann had never anticipated that the case would see a courtroom. The attorneys exchanged barbs over judicial misconduct.
These debates were still very much in play when the attorneys from all parties were notified that Aaron had taken his own life.
“I feel like I could put a brick through a window,” Bob says in late October as he shuffles down Ames Street in Kendall Square. He left his overcoat back in the Media Lab building, and the wind is piercing his thin jacket. Bob is frustrated. The government is shut down, meaning his efforts to enact “Aaron’s Law,” federal legislation that would reform the CFAA, have been stymied. Bob wants to publish the discovery documents the prosecution gathered while making its case, but MIT has been dragging its feet, quibbling over redactions. And he’s found that it’s been harder to change the university than he had hoped.
When the Abelson report was released, President Reif promised a series of forums that would be held throughout the fall. The first one wasn’t scheduled until December, nearly a year after Aaron’s death. “MIT has dedicated thousands of hours to understanding what happened and to thinking about where we go from here,” says university spokesperson Nathaniel Nickerson, explaining the delay. In the absence of school-sponsored meetings, students have been talking about Aaron’s ordeal in small circles, if they feel comfortable talking about it at all.
Students and faculty in and around the Media Lab have said that what happened to Aaron has led to a chilling effect. If it could happen to him, it could happen to any of them. They’ve been reluctant to share their thoughts on official MIT online forums, which require a university sign-in. “I’ve had people ask me to post for them,” says Nathan Matias, a graduate student at the Media Lab. “They’ve told me that they fear repercussions.”
The Abelson report stated that MIT’s decision makers had ignored the charges against Aaron until a year after the indictment, and never “form[ed] an opinion about their merits.” The report also chastised students and faculty for not bringing concerns about the case to the administration before Aaron’s suicide. The implication that too few students and faculty stepped forward to support Aaron infuriates some of his supporters. “Any time somebody is in jeopardy or puts the university in any sort of risk, they’re thrown under the bus,” says Willow Brugh, a Media Lab research affiliate. “Why would anyone possibly speak up against an issue like this?… It’s absolute bullshit. In order to have academic integrity, you need to have to a safe space for people to dissent.”
Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media, says the Abelson report also raises questions about the university’s hacker culture. “MIT has long prided itself on creating a space for experimentation, including experimentation that involves bending or breaking rules,” Zuckerman says. “This is a university that’s internationally known for student pranks like putting a police car on the dome. One of the first questions, I think, is: Does this only apply when you’re having fun? Or does this apply when you’re engaged in politics or social change?”
“I think the worry is that the institute, which was always freewheeling, fun-loving, and impish-behavior-tolerating, is becoming captive to a set of lawyerly and administrative dictates,” says computer science professor and former Harvard dean Harry Lewis, who taught both Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. “Universities are much more beholden to officials in the federal government, state, and local government, to stay on their good side. But there’s something lost when the lawyers and the people who have to make the business of the university run get to influence decisions that have real educational and philosophical and student-life-related consequences.”
The Abelson report addresses this danger. It notes that “MIT is respected for world-class work in information technology, for promoting open access to online information, and for dealing wisely with the risks of computer abuse. The world looks to MIT to be at the forefront of these areas. Looking back on the Aaron Swartz case, the world didn’t see leadership.”
Bob has become convinced that MIT chose not to lead—and instead acted in its own self interest. The university has more than $940 million in government contracts for the classified research it conducts in its Lincoln Laboratory, and its IT networks are constantly under threat from China and other hostile hackers. MIT’s report says as much: “A laptop attached to the network has the potential to perform a wide range of activities, and the MIT network has access to many services and databases that are critical for MIT research and education, some that involve sensitive information and government applications.” Bob reasons that MIT chose not to cross Heymann so as not to alienate the New England Electronic Crimes Task Force—or endanger its federal grants.
The university’s executive vice president and treasurer, Israel Ruiz, told me that MIT’s dependence on federal grants did not factor into its decision to remain neutral, and that the university will evaluate future criminal instances on campus on a case-by-case basis. “We all know that we need to do a better job,” he told me. “Unfortunately we cannot repeat history…we’re trying to move forward.”
Bob sighs as he trudges back to his office at the Media Lab building. The wind shifts and pushes a handful of brittle leaves in his path. He crushes them under his feet. “We couldn’t change things,” he says.
“Aaron had all these resources. He was bright, he had a very competent legal counsel, he had money, he had a family that supported him, and he was destroyed by the legal system.” He shakes his head, and rubs his eyes with his hand. “I was better connected to people at MIT than almost anyone else, right? What happens in these instances where people don’t have these connections and this sort of level of determination? They get completely crushed.
“What kind of justice is there in a world, in that instance? Because most people don’t have anywhere near the resources that we’ve applied to this. I don’t think I’m stupid, and I don’t think I give up easily. But most people. Most people do.”
The house of ideas is tucked back at the end of a very long drive, off a leafy road in Highland Park. The minivan parked outside is a sensible beige, with a sticker on the driver’s side door, a small rectangle with a black-and-white photo of a dark-haired young man and the words: “Justice for Aaron Swartz.” On the bumper is another: “Hacking is not a crime.”
Inside, shelves buckle with books: a gold-embossed edition of the Talmud, manuals on coding in Python, a huge tome on Matisse, a guide to visiting family-friendly ranches. Stacks of magazines slump under the coffee table; portraits of brown-haired boys line the mantel. In one photo, the eldest stands to the left of his father, arms pulled behind him. He wears a slight smile. It’s the same as his father’s.
The house is not far from Lake Michigan, and every morning the father wakes and tries to walk, under the pretense of exercise, but really as a way to think. Lately, though, the shoreline has been under construction, so he’s been walking the ravines he used to play in as a child. He can still tell you exactly the way the paths twist and wind. The thoughts, they follow him too.
Other times, he’ll go to his office in a nearby industrial park. It’s really more of a workshop, full of machines: 3-D printers and Russian microscopes, high-tech ovens and machining tools. He picks through the parts, distracts himself trying to make things work.
“What I like to say about this stuff you see on this table,” he tells me there one day, “is that all I do all day is failed experiments.”
He picks up a handful of 2-inch carbon-fiber square grids—each about the size of a poker chip—and shows them to me. It’s obvious that these are the rejects. They’ve melted in places, or have tiny threads of carbon fiber or rough edges. They are imperfect.
“This is a failure, too,” he says, holding one between his fingers. “It’s just better than all the other failures.”
He once wrote in a letter to MIT’s president, L. Rafael Reif: “We, you and I, have failed my son, Aaron. I promised him that I would use every synapse in my brain and every sinew of my body to get him out of his predicament. I failed. However, I have seen MIT fail, too.”
Does he still feel this way? I ask.
“Of course. There’s a duality there, right? Clearly I failed. There’s no question, my son is dead. On the other hand, do I feel that I didn’t try hard enough? Yes. Do I feel guilt about not trying hard enough? No. If you understand the distinction I’m trying to make. Could I have done more? Of course I could have done more. Because you can always do more. Did I put everything in that I possibly could? Did I work as hard pretty much as I knew how? Yes. Do I wish I did more? Yes.
“But I don’t go home at night and say, ‘Well, you didn’t care.’ Because I did. I cared about it more than anything else.” His voice catches. “And I don’t go home at night and say, ‘I didn’t try.’ Because I tried. Everything I could figure out. But I failed.”
He points at the carbon pieces he’d just held in his hands. “With that stuff you get as many chances as you want,” he says. “But with this I don’t get another chance.”