Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Aaron Swartz arrested

Aaron Swartz  has been arrested for breaching JSTOR's terms and conditions and for breaking into MIT's network to do so.  The indictment states:

"11. Between September 24, 2010, and January 6, 2011, Swartz contrived to:
a. break into a restricted computer wiring closet at MIT;
b. access MIT's network without authorization from a switch within that closet;
c. connect to JSTOR's archive of digitized journal articles through MIT's computer network;
d. use this access to download a major portion of JSTOR's archive onto his computers and computer hard drives ;
e. avoid JSTOR's and MIT's efforts to prevent this massive copying, measures which were directed at users generally and at Swartz's illicit conduct specifically; and
f.  ellude detection and identification;
all with the purpose of distributing a significant proportion of JSTOR's archive through one or more file sharing sites."

It also says "Swartz used MIT's computer networks to steal well over 4,000,000 articles from JSTOR."

Firstly copying is not stealing.  Secondly the Ars technica article above points to some evidence that Swartz has previously used large volumes of legal articles for research.  Thirdly there does not appear to be any evidence that he intended to distribute the articles on file sharing sites. Without knowing all the details I would guess that, despite his committment to openness, Aaron Swartz understands the legal issues and penalties too well to have any such intention.

So, again without knowing all the details it is hard to say definitively, but this looks more like a bureaucratic over-reaction to rule breaking than a serious criminal case.  Yet the consequences, should it go to trial and the court conclude malign intent, are extremely draconian.  It will bear watching closely and hopefully Aaron Swartz's friends in the legal, digital rights and academic communities will guide him carefully through it.

Update: Demand Progress has a support Aaron petition.

Update 2:  The charges are  -
1. wire fraud (18 USC sections 1343 and 2);
2. computer fraud (18 USC sections 1030(a)4 and 2);
3. unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer (18 USC sections 1030(a)(2), (c)(2)(B)(iii) and 2);
4. recklessly damaging a protected computer (18 USC sections 1030(a)(5)(B), (c)(4)(A)(i)(I),(IV) & 2);

Update 3: According to Wired, JSTOR did not want a prosecution and it wasn't them that called in the police.  They got all the downloaded files back but the federal prosecutors and the New England Electronic Crimes Task Force see an opportunity to pursue a high profile computer crime case. It looks like it is the MIT police and the feds who are the prime movers behind the case rather than JSTOR. It would be interesting to know who made the original complaint though.

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