There’s Now Video of Aaron Swartz Downloading Articles from MIT

Wired Magazine published the surveillance footage of an action that led to the internet activist's prosecution.


Screenshot via

Wired Magazine used a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain security footage of internet activist Aaron Swartz entering a network closet at MIT, to download millions of files from the online scholarly article database JSTOR.

Now you can watch Swartz commit the action for which the federal government charged him with crimes that carried a maximum sentence of 35 years in prison and millions of dollars in fines. He was facing those charges when he took his own life this January.

As Wired recounts, an investigation began when MIT technicians discovered that a user was downloading millions of academic articles from the JSTOR database. When they discovered a laptop connected to the network in a closet, they left it there, and set up a surveillance camera. Thus can we now watch Swartz in January 2011 entering the closet, a bike helmet on his backpack, pulling a hard drive from his bag, and then eventually leaving. Swartz was protesting the idea that taxpayer-funded or government grant-supported research could be kept from all but those taxpayers willing to pay JSTOR’s subscription fees.  

MIT’s own internal review decided that the university acted in good faith throughout Swartz’s prosecution, but both the university and the U.S. Attonrey’s office have been roundly criticized for their respective roles in the events leading up to his death. The video is interesting, writes Wired’s Kevin Poulsen, a one-time Swartz collaborator, in part because it offers a glimpse into Swartz’s actions as MIT and federal investigators saw them. Here, he appears as “a furtive hacker going someplace he shouldn’t go, doing something he shouldn’t do.” Still, Poulsen argues, as others have before, MIT should have done more for a furtive hacker in their midst, especially with his actions being ones not of self-enrichment, but of civil disobedience.