July 19, 2011 at 7:50 PM ET
Internet activist Aaron Swartz has been charged with the theft of 4.8 million documents using computers at MIT, the New York Times is reporting today.
The publicly available indictment , filed by U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, Carmen M. Ortiz, describes Swartz's alleged indiscretions in full detail, listing multiple instances of his evasion of MIT's attempts to stop him from downloading documents en masse from JSTOR, a document and journal repository. Swartz is being charged with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer.
Swartz is a programmer and Web political activist who co-founded a number of enterprises, including a company that was bought by Reddit. Most recently, he was involved in developing Web activist site Demand Progress. Demand Progress published a press release on its website defending Swartz, and is collecting statements of support for its founder.
According to this indictment, starting in late September 2010 Swartz, then a Harvard fellow, skipped down the road to MIT and apparently downloaded the documents through MIT's wireless guest network.
The indictment says that Swartz used an Acer laptop, plugged into the network under two fictitious usernames — "Gary Host" and "Grace Host" — and a "throwaway email address" — firstname.lastname@example.org — to access the JSTOR archive. Apparently with the help of software that entered search terms automatically, he then used the laptop to start downloading a large number of documents.
Then came the first of MIT's and JSTOR's attempts to block Swartz's access to the archive, the indictment continues. A day after Swartz's first set of downloads, JSTOR blocked the IP address associated with his Acer. The day after that, Swartz allegedly got another IP address. JSTOR traced and blocked that too, and in an attempt to stop other infiltrators from MIT, blocked other legitimate users from MIT who happened to have a code with the same first set of digits.
That's when MIT stepped in and banned the computer from its network, for not complying with its rules of computer use. This cat-and-mouse game of shifting IP addresses and blocks ultimately ended in Swartz "hard-wiring" himself into the network, and hiding his connected computer and external hard drives in a closet in the basement of one of the buildings.
What we imagine was a surveillance camera apparently recorded Swartz's moves in early January, as further described by the indictment, when he came to pick up his stuff:
"As Swartz entered the wiring closet, he held his bicycle helmet like a mask to shield his face, looking through ventilation holes in the helmet. Swartz then removed his computer equipment from the closet, put it in his backpack, and left, again masking his face with the bicycle helmet before peering through a crack in the double doors and cautiously stepping out."
Later that same day, Swartz fled from MIT Police who were trying to question him, carrying away a USB drive with one of the download-and-evade programs on it, the indictment says.
Swartz, a serial data dabbler, has been involved in past projects including Open Library, described on his website as "an ambitious project to collect information about every book every published." Swartz also helped develop watchdog.net, which helps people find and access government data.
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