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.

“I feel like I could put a brick through a window,” Bob says in late October as he shuffles down Ames Street in Kendall Square. He left his overcoat back in the Media Lab building, and the wind is piercing his thin jacket. Bob is frustrated. The government is shut down, meaning his efforts to enact “Aaron’s Law,” federal legislation that would reform the CFAA, have been stymied. Bob wants to publish the discovery documents the prosecution gathered while making its case, but MIT has been dragging its feet, quibbling over redactions. And he’s found that it’s been harder to change the university than he had hoped.

When the Abelson report was released, President Reif promised a series of forums that would be held throughout the fall. The first one wasn’t scheduled until December, nearly a year after Aaron’s death. “MIT has dedicated thousands of hours to understanding what happened and to thinking about where we go from here,” says university spokesperson Nathaniel Nickerson, explaining the delay. In the absence of school-sponsored meetings, students have been talking about Aaron’s ordeal in small circles, if they feel comfortable talking about it at all.

Students and faculty in and around the Media Lab have said that what happened to Aaron has led to a chilling effect. If it could happen to him, it could happen to any of them. They’ve been reluctant to share their thoughts on official MIT online forums, which require a university sign-in. “I’ve had people ask me to post for them,” says Nathan Matias, a graduate student at the Media Lab. “They’ve told me that they fear repercussions.”

The Abelson report stated that MIT’s decision makers had ignored the charges against Aaron until a year after the indictment, and never “form[ed] an opinion about their merits.” The report also chastised students and faculty for not bringing concerns about the case to the administration before Aaron’s suicide. The implication that too few students and faculty stepped forward to support Aaron infuriates some of his supporters. “Any time somebody is in jeopardy or puts the university in any sort of risk, they’re thrown under the bus,” says Willow Brugh, a Media Lab research affiliate. “Why would anyone possibly speak up against an issue like this?… It’s absolute bullshit. In order to have academic integrity, you need to have to a safe space for people to dissent.”

Ethan Zuckerman, the director of the Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media, says the Abelson report also raises questions about the university’s hacker culture. “MIT has long prided itself on creating a space for experimentation, including experimentation that involves bending or breaking rules,” Zuckerman says. “This is a university that’s internationally known for student pranks like putting a police car on the dome. One of the first questions, I think, is: Does this only apply when you’re having fun? Or does this apply when you’re engaged in politics or social change?”

“I think the worry is that the institute, which was always freewheeling, fun-loving, and impish-behavior-tolerating, is becoming captive to a set of lawyerly and administrative dictates,” says computer science professor and former Harvard dean Harry Lewis, who taught both Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. “Universities are much more beholden to officials in the federal government, state, and local government, to stay on their good side. But there’s something lost when the lawyers and the people who have to make the business of the university run get to influence decisions that have real educational and philosophical and student-life-related consequences.”

The Abelson report addresses this danger. It notes that “MIT is respected for world-class work in information technology, for promoting open access to online information, and for dealing wisely with the risks of computer abuse. The world looks to MIT to be at the forefront of these areas. Looking back on the Aaron Swartz case, the world didn’t see leadership.”

Bob has become convinced that MIT chose not to lead—and instead acted in its own self interest. The university has more than $940 million in government contracts for the classified research it conducts in its Lincoln Laboratory, and its IT networks are constantly under threat from China and other hostile hackers. MIT’s report says as much: “A laptop attached to the network has the potential to perform a wide range of activities, and the MIT network has access to many services and databases that are critical for MIT research and education, some that involve sensitive information and government applications.” Bob reasons that MIT chose not to cross Heymann so as not to alienate the New England Electronic Crimes Task Force—or endanger its federal grants.

The university’s executive vice president and treasurer, Israel Ruiz, told me that MIT’s dependence on federal grants did not factor into its decision to remain neutral, and that the university will evaluate future criminal instances on campus on a case-by-case basis. “We all know that we need to do a better job,” he told me. “Unfortunately we cannot repeat history…we’re trying to move forward.”

Bob sighs as he trudges back to his office at the Media Lab building. The wind shifts and pushes a handful of brittle leaves in his path. He crushes them under his feet. “We couldn’t change things,” he says.

“Aaron had all these resources. He was bright, he had a very competent legal counsel, he had money, he had a family that supported him, and he was destroyed by the legal system.” He shakes his head, and rubs his eyes with his hand. “I was better connected to people at MIT than almost anyone else, right? What happens in these instances where people don’t have these connections and this sort of level of determination? They get completely crushed.

“What kind of justice is there in a world, in that instance? Because most people don’t have anywhere near the resources that we’ve applied to this. I don’t think I’m stupid, and I don’t think I give up easily. But most people. Most people do.”

 

The house of ideas is tucked back at the end of a very long drive, off a leafy road in Highland Park. The minivan parked outside is a sensible beige, with a sticker on the driver’s side door, a small rectangle with a black-and-white photo of a dark-haired young man and the words: “Justice for Aaron Swartz.” On the bumper is another: “Hacking is not a crime.”

Inside, shelves buckle with books: a gold-embossed edition of the Talmud, manuals on coding in Python, a huge tome on Matisse, a guide to visiting family-friendly ranches. Stacks of magazines slump under the coffee table; portraits of brown-haired boys line the mantel. In one photo, the eldest stands to the left of his father, arms pulled behind him. He wears a slight smile. It’s the same as his father’s.

The house is not far from Lake Michigan, and every morning the father wakes and tries to walk, under the pretense of exercise, but really as a way to think. Lately, though, the shoreline has been under construction, so he’s been walking the ravines he used to play in as a child. He can still tell you exactly the way the paths twist and wind. The thoughts, they follow him too.

Other times, he’ll go to his office in a nearby industrial park. It’s really more of a workshop, full of machines: 3-D printers and Russian microscopes, high-tech ovens and machining tools. He picks through the parts, distracts himself trying to make things work.

“What I like to say about this stuff you see on this table,” he tells me there one day, “is that all I do all day is failed experiments.”

He picks up a handful of 2-inch carbon-fiber square grids—each about the size of a poker chip—and shows them to me. It’s obvious that these are the rejects. They’ve melted in places, or have tiny threads of carbon fiber or rough edges. They are imperfect.

“This is a failure, too,” he says, holding one between his fingers. “It’s just better than all the other failures.”

He once wrote in a letter to MIT’s president, L. Rafael Reif: “We, you and I, have failed my son, Aaron. I promised him that I would use every synapse in my brain and every sinew of my body to get him out of his predicament. I failed. However, I have seen MIT fail, too.”

Does he still feel this way? I ask.

“Of course. There’s a duality there, right? Clearly I failed. There’s no question, my son is dead. On the other hand, do I feel that I didn’t try hard enough? Yes. Do I feel guilt about not trying hard enough? No. If you understand the distinction I’m trying to make. Could I have done more? Of course I could have done more. Because you can always do more. Did I put everything in that I possibly could? Did I work as hard pretty much as I knew how? Yes. Do I wish I did more? Yes.

“But I don’t go home at night and say, ‘Well, you didn’t care.’ Because I did. I cared about it more than anything else.” His voice catches. “And I don’t go home at night and say, ‘I didn’t try.’ Because I tried. Everything I could figure out. But I failed.”

He points at the carbon pieces he’d just held in his hands. “With that stuff you get as many chances as you want,” he says. “But with this I don’t get another chance.”


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