Aaron Swartz, Dead At 26

by lizard

Before yesterday, I didn’t know who Aaron Swartz was, but as the news of his alleged suicide spread online over the weekend, I learned enough to understand why the outpouring of grief and anger has been so acute.

At the age of 26, Aaron had accomplished more than people twice his age. One significant example: he was instrumental in stopping SOPA, which is the subject of this incredibly inspiring keynote speech Aaron Swartz delivered last year:

Here’s a bit more of his bio, from mashable.com:

Born in 1986, Swartz co-authored the first specification of RSS when he was 14. He also started Infogami, a service funded by Y Combinator that was later merged with social networking site Reddit.

Swartz also co-founded Demand Progress, an advocacy group that rallies people “to take action on the news that affects them — by contacting Congress and other leaders, funding pressure tactics, and spreading the word in their own communities.”

In July 2011, Swartz was arrested for allegedly harvesting 4 million academic papers from the JSTOR online journal archive. He appeared in court in Sept. 2012, pleading not guilty.

That last line about Swartz’s legal troubles is what many are speculating may have contributed to his decision to take his own life. He was in the midst of an aggressive prosecution that could land him 30 years in prison.

The best perspective on that case I’ve read comes from the expert witness, Alex Stamos, who felt compelled to set some things straight:

I did not know Aaron Swartz, unless you count having copies of a person’s entire digital life on your forensics server as knowing him. I did once meet his father, an intelligent and dedicated man who was clearly pouring his life into defending his son. My deepest condolences go out to him and the rest of Aaron’s family during what must be the hardest time of their lives.

If the good that men do is oft interred with their bones, so be it, but in the meantime I feel a responsibility to correct some of the erroneous information being posted as comments to otherwise informative discussions at Reddit, Hacker News and Boing Boing. Apparently some people feel the need to self-aggrandize by opining on the guilt of the recently departed, and I wanted to take this chance to speak on behalf of a man who can no longer defend himself. I had hoped to ask Aaron to discuss these issues on the Defcon stage once he was acquitted, but now that he has passed it is important that his memory not be besmirched by the ignorant and uninformed. I have confirmed with Aaron’s attorneys that I am free to discuss these issues now that the criminal case is moot.

I was the expert witness on Aaron’s side of US vs Swartz, engaged by his attorneys last year to help prepare a defense for his April trial. Until Keker Van Nest called iSEC Partners I had very little knowledge of Aaron’s plight, and although we have spoken at or attended many of the same events we had never once met.

Should you doubt my neutrality, let me establish my bona fides. I have led the investigation of dozens of computer crimes, from Latvian hackers blackmailing a stock brokerage to Chinese government-backed attacks against dozens of American enterprises. I have investigated small insider violations of corporate policy to the theft of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and have responded to break-ins at social networks, e-tailers and large banks. While we are no stranger to pro bono work, having served as experts on EFF vs Sony BMG and Sony vs Hotz, our reports have also been used in the prosecution of at least a half dozen attackers. In short, I am no long-haired-hippy-anarchist who believes that anything goes on the Internet. I am much closer to the stereotypical capitalist-white-hat sellout that the antisec people like to rant about (and steal mail spools from) in the weeks before BlackHat.

I know a criminal hack when I see it, and Aaron’s downloading of journal articles from an unlocked closet is not an offense worth 35 years in jail.

Stamos proceeds to lay out the facts of the case, facts that led to an easy conclusion that prosecutors were being exceptionally aggressive in going after Swartz over the electronic theft of academic papers.

Lawrence Lessig describes his perception on the prosecutorial zeal in this response:

Here is where we need a better sense of justice, and shame. For the outrageousness in this story is not just Aaron. It is also the absurdity of the prosecutor’s behavior. From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. The “property” Aaron had “stolen,” we were told, was worth “millions of dollars” — with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime. But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed.

Aaron had literally done nothing in his life “to make money.” He was fortunate Reddit turned out as it did, but from his work building the RSS standard, to his work architecting Creative Commons, to his work liberating public records, to his work building a free public library, to his work supporting Change Congress/FixCongressFirst/Rootstrikers, and then Demand Progress, Aaron was always and only working for (at least his conception of) the public good. He was brilliant, and funny. A kid genius. A soul, a conscience, the source of a question I have asked myself a million times: What would Aaron think? That person is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.

For remember, we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House — and where even those brought to “justice” never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled “felons.”

In that world, the question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a “felon.” For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million dollar trial in April — his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge. And so as wrong and misguided and fucking sad as this is, I get how the prospect of this fight, defenseless, made it make sense to this brilliant but troubled boy to end it.

Even Aaron’s parents, with their official statement, put their son’s death in context:

Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.

Today, we grieve for the extraordinary and irreplaceable man that we have lost.

There is no justice in the American judicial system.

Not when there is actually a bank, HSBC, that has been officially declared too-big-to-prosecute for laundering drug money:

DOJ attorneys argued that aggressively prosecuting HSBC could destabilize the entire international banking system. Breuer said in an interview with the Washington Post, “If you prosecute one of the largest banks in the world, do you risk that people will lose jobs, other financial institutions and other parties will leave the bank, and there will be some kind of event in the world economy?” In other words, banks that break the law by laundering money for drug cartels and rogue states are immune from criminal prosecution because a global financial meltdown could be triggered.

So while bankers can break the law with total impunity, a brilliant young man is broken by the state and its minions—in this case, Carmen Ortiz, a person even Chris Hayes singled out in his response on his show:

You should know his death is a good reason to revisit the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the law under which he was prosecuted, since it is far too broad, and to take a hard look at Massachusetts U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, whose office prosecuted Aaron with such recklessly disproportionate vigor, and who is reportedly considering a run for governor.

(I expect Anonymous is already at work on that one)

Two days ago I didn’t know anything about Aaron Swartz. Now I know how much I have to thank him for.

  1. Steve W

    Thanks for sharing this information. It’s important to me, so I assume it may also be important to other people.

  2. lizard19


    bastard suckers of soul—
    Carmen Ortiz, Stephen Heymann
    close your dead-heart fingers
    on one more rung of ladder
    close your eyes and know
    bad magic has you caught
    you pawns you yawns of fatigue
    you decline of the human species
    gutter-trumpeting for more
    to be Governor, right Carmen?
    to fill her hole, right Stephen?
    and forget you played a role
    in Aaron Swartz’s death
    forget your fuck-wand of justice
    pretzels itself beneath dollar men
    stomping aggressively to cloud
    to prevent these brilliant sparks
    from catching, from spreading

  3. d.g.

    So, my “rant” will always be the local take on things. We have, in our Methuselah-aged city attorney Jim Nugent, someone very close to Joseph McCarthy, Very close to J. Edgar Hoover. Very close to Bob Halderman. That closeness defined by being an individual so contentious, so supercilious, so rooted in a defensive strategy against inclusive society, broader humanity and anything that challenges a frighteningly narrow view of what is “right” that it becomes heartless, mindless and cruel. Read the Montana Supreme Court ruling in the Missoula-based Muth/Duncan Drive development case. Never before has the MT Supreme Court chastised a city attorney so decisively. Then see how tax dollars at UM were used to press “copyright infringement” charges against the kid who used the Griz pawprint on his Homecoming protest posters. Ask UM President Engstrom why the “streaker” received harsher treatment than the accused rapist who fled the country. These sharks attack the people they feel they can take down easily. It is an American tragedy that Aaron Swartz fell victim to these predators.

  4. Craig Moore

    Lizard, consider this neutral analysis and rendition of the facts. http://www.volokh.com/2013/01/14/aaron-swartz-charges/

    • JC

      Since when has Volokh been a neutral blog?

    • lizard19

      that was an interesting article, including the comment thread, very informative. I’ll be more interested to read part II, about prosecutorial discretion.

      what an objective analysis of this case can’t factor in is the terror the state has behind it when it turns the screws, as it has done against Bradley Manning, who, according to this court ruling,

      …suffered illegal pretrial punishment during nine months in a Marine Corps brig in Quantico, Va.

      Manning’s little legal victory means a paltry 112 days will be taken off any sentence he may receive, if convicted. 112 days in compensation for being tortured by the United States government.

      in Swartz’s case, he was already prone to depression, so the capacity of the state to impose inhumane treatment in retaliation to political embarrassment very probably contributed to Aaron Swartz’s decision to end his life.

      • Craig Moore

        Lizard, here is Part II. http://www.volokh.com/2013/01/16/the-criminal-charges-against-aaron-swartz-part-2-prosecutorial-discretion/

        Finally, I think the instinct to blame the prosecutors in this case should be checked because it is fueled in significant part by a human but improper motive: Making sense of Swartz’s suicide. When a young person commits suicide, there is a natural instinct to restore a sense of order to the world by finding someone to blame. We deal with the sense of shocking and unimaginable and senseless loss by pinning the blame on someone to create a tidy narrative of wrongful actor and wrongful act…

        But it’s not really about the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act; it’s about the human need to find someone to blame for a senseless and tragic suicide. As human as that instinct is to want to combine them, I think we need to separate out the suicide from our criticisms of the prosecutors’ behavior.

        • Steve W

          Craig, weren’t you the guy falsely slandering another blog for censoring your posts when in fact you forgot which thread you posted them to?

          Too funny, dude and so ironic.

        • lizard19

          people reading your quote should really read the whole, disingenuous article, because they will find bits like this:

          On the fourth issue, yes, the Swartz case does point to a serious problem with the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

          I say disingenuous, because of this line of thinking:

          But the broader point is that if we think agressive prosecution tactics such as this are improper, we shouldn’t be focused just on the Aaron Swartz case. Rather, we should be shining a light on the federal criminal system in its entirety. These sorts of tactics have been going on for years, without many people paying attention. If we don’t want a world in which prosecutors have these powers, we shouldn’t just object when the defendant in the crosshairs is a genius who went to Stanford, hangs out with Larry Lessig, and is represented by the extremely expensive lawyers at Keker & Van Nest. We should object just as much — or even more — when the defendant is poor, unknown, and unconnected to the powerful. To do otherwise sends an extremely troubling message to prosecutors that they need to be extra sensitive when considering charges against defendants with connections. We have too much of a two-tiered justice system already, I think. So blame the system and aim to reform the system; don’t think that this was just two or three prosecutors that were doing something unusual. It wasn’t.

          plenty of folks upset about Aaron’s case are pointing this out—that it’s a systemic problem—because it is.

          in fact one of the prosecutors, Stephen Heymann, is linked to another bullying prosecution that ended in suicide.

          Now it appears that Swartz’s line prosecutor, Assistant United States Attorney Stephen Heymann was connected to a prior suicide of a defendant in a similar case. In 2008, Jonathan James killed himself while being pursued by Heymann in a criminal hacker case.

          Heymann secured a record by making James the first juvenile jailed in a federal cybercrime case. James insisted in his suicide note that he was innocent but that the prosecutors would not leave him alone. He wrote “I have no faith in the ‘justice’ system. Perhaps my actions today, and this letter, will send a stronger message to the public. Either way, I have lost control over this situation, and this is my only way to regain control.”

          our entire criminal justice system is a kafkaesque clusterfuck of cruelty.

  5. lizard19

    Glenn Greenwald has a new article up today at the Guardian. here’s a peek:

    The Wall Street Journal reported this week that – two days before the 26-year-old activist killed himself on Friday – federal prosecutors again rejected a plea bargain offer from Swartz’s lawyers that would have kept him out of prison. They instead demanded that he “would need to plead guilty to every count” and made clear that “the government would insist on prison time”. That made a trial on all 15 felony counts – with the threat of a lengthy prison sentence if convicted – a virtual inevitability.

    Just three months ago, Ortiz’s office, as TechDirt reported, severely escalated the already-excessive four-felony-count indictment by adding nine new felony counts, each of which “carrie[d] the possibility of a fine and imprisonment of up to 10-20 years per felony”, meaning “the sentence could conceivably total 50+ years and [a] fine in the area of $4 million.” That meant, as Think Progress documented, that Swartz faced “a more severe prison term than killers, slave dealers and bank robbers”.

    to highlight Greenwald’s last point, let’s look at a local case where a young man spent ONLY 90 DAYS IN JAIL for raping to underage girls:

    A Missoula man convicted of raping two 14-year-old girls when he was 21 will spend 90 days in the Missoula County jail.

    Missoula County District Court Judge John Larson sentenced Shawn Lowe, 23, on Thursday to 20 years in prison, but suspended all of that but 90 days, which he said Lowe could spent in the Missoula County Detention Facility. He also designated Lowe a tier 1 sex offender, meaning that his risk of repeating the offense is low.

    “I messed up big,” Lowe mumbled Thursday. “ … I’ve learned from my mistake. I hope that I and everyone else can just move on.”

    that’s justice in America, and it’s fucking disgusting.

  6. lizard19

    more justice in America. Thompson Falls School Board vice chairman, Lance Pavlik, is facing a stiff 2 1/2 years for killing 2 people and injuring 2 children in a drunk driving accident.

  7. This guy at Natural News is fucking nuts and a delusional christian wacko but this story is right up your alley, liz. Big Pharma linked to gun violence.

    Link won’t load best google it.

  1. 1 Moneyball Campaigns, Stasi 2.0 and the Death of Democracy in America | 4&20 blackbirds

    […] it to say here, that the CFAA is what DoJ used to go after Aaron Swartz, which led to his suicide, and led to Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Zoe Lofgren to introduce […]

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