The MIT Hoaxster Alleged a Gunman Was Retaliating for Aaron Swartz

What a terrible act of reprisal.

The person who sent in a false tip that a gunman was roaming the MIT campus Saturday morning alleged that the gunman was targeting MIT’s president in retaliation for the university’s role in the prosecution of Aaron Swartz. MIT Executive Vice President and Treasurer Israel Ruiz wrote in a letter reproduced by the MIT Tech:

At 7:32 AM, the caller identified the alleged gunman by name. The person named was confirmed to be a member of MIT’s staff. This person was later questioned and found not to be connected to the incident in any way.

At 7:35 AM, the caller identified MIT President Rafael Reif as the target and said that the alleged gunman was heading towards the administration offices. At 7:37 AM, the caller indicated that the alleged gunman was retaliating against people involved in the suicide of Aaron Swartz. The officers continued their search of the Main Group and proceeded to a second location to ensure the safety of MIT’s President. At 8:52 AM, a campus-wide alert was sent.

Swartz committed suicide in January as he faced federal prosecution for sneaking into an MIT closet to connect to their network and download thousands of academic articles from the website JSTOR. His death prompted outcry from those who criticized MIT itself for its role in the prosecution, which has led the university to investigate the part they played. MIT didn’t say for certain whether the prankster was acting because of Swartz, but the nature of the claim certainly makes it a possibility. So far, the university has already faced more mild reprisals from internet activists including a few hacks of its homepage.

Ruiz makes the unsettling point that the tipster’s fake claim went too far not just because of the expense involved in checking it out, the fear it caused, or the disruptions to the neighborhood:

The reported sighting was a hoax. But that does not mean that it was minor or to be taken lightly. For a time on Saturday morning, upwards of 30 armed police officers were searching a building for a person they believed was also armed; it is not hard to see how someone could have been seriously injured by mistake. This hoax also involved a malicious allegation against a member of our community and direct threats of physical harm to MIT staff. We should all understand that this is not a game.

The tip came through a Sprint message relaying service designed for people with speech and hearing impediments. The FBI and U.S. Secret Service are helping in the investigation to find the tipster and say they will press charges if they do. Given the national mood in the wake of shootings in Aurora, Colorado and Sandy Hook, Connecticut,  it doesn’t seem like anyone will be in a very forgiving mood for pranks like this one.