November 21, 2017

Swartz Faces Additional Charges in Alleged JSTOR Theft

Seth Finkelstein’s blog alerted me to the fact that the case against Aaron Swartz for stealing JTSOR files had expanded from four felony counts to thirteen. The overview of the revised charges:

“Between September 24, 2010, and January 6, 2011, Swartz contrived to:

a. break into a restricted-access computer wiring closet at MIT;
b. access MIT’s network without authorization from a switch within that closet;
c. access JSTOR’s archive of digitized journal articles through MIT’s computer network;
d. use this access to download a substantial portion of JSTOR’s total archive onto his computers and computer hard drives;
e. avoid MIT’s and JSTOR’s efforts to prevent this massive copying, efforts that were directed at users generally and at Swartz’s illicit conduct specifically; and
f. elude detection and identification.”

The indictment is quite readable and is only 16 pages long. Whether you think Mr. Swartz is striking a principled blow for the freedom of information, or is a common (or not so common) thief, it will be interesting to see what comes of this case. As Finkelstein puts it, “It’s beyond my pay grade to figure out how many years in prison that all could be, when taking into account the complexities of sentencing law. Let’s leave it at a large scary number. Enough to ruin someone’s life.”

No matter what you think of JSTOR’s pay wall, if Swartz did what the charges allege, and there is apparently security camera footage to help prove it, these are serious allegations that go to the heart of what it means to be a civil society. If you believe something is wrong there are ways to call attention to and change that wrong — including civil disobedience. But these charges describe crimes that should give anyone pause no matter what you think of the ends Swartz may have been trying to achieve.