Bob Swartz: Losing Aaron

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.
bob swartz mit

As an adviser to MIT’s Media Lab, Bob Swartz visits campus every month. “I see Aaron on every corner,” he says. (Photograph by Mark Fleming)

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?


Janelle Nanos
Janelle Nanos Janelle Nanos, Contributor jnanos@bostonmagazine.com