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Digital activist indicted for hacking

Aaron Swartz faces up to 35 years in prison for downloading academic journals

Swartz is an open-rights activist and web pioneer

Swartz was arrested on Tuesday for downloading almost five million academic papers from JSTOR over a period of months using an MIT account. He was conducting research at MIT at the time and was entitled to access them, but he has violated JSTOR's terms of service by taking too many. JSTOR is a subscription service that provides universities with access to academic journals.

Swartz was an early employee at Reddit, and co-founder of activism group Demand Progress, whose mission is "to win progressive policy changes for ordinary people through organizing, lobbying, and elections in the United States". He is a member of the W3C's RDF Core Working Group, and co-authored the RSS 1.0 specification.

According to the indictment, Swartz bought a new laptop specifically for the task, broke into a wiring cupboard in MIT and connected the laptop to the switch. He used a program to automate the task of requesting the journals and also to confuse JSTOR's attempts to stop his massive downloads. So much load was placed on JSTOR servers that they struggled to provide service to other subscribers.

Both JSTOR and MIT took steps to block his computer from the network, and Swartz in turn took counter measures to overcome their efforts. At one point, JSTOR cut off access to the whole of MIT for a few days after some of their servers were brought down by the volume of his requests.

He moved the laptop between various cupboards in different buildings and hid it so that it could be left to perform its work unattended. Swartz was spied going into a cupboard to collect his equipment.

All of this took place between September 2010 and January 2011. The indictment also says that he intended to distribute the journals on P2P networks, although it doesn't say how they know this was his plan. You can read the indictment, which tells the whole story quite neatly, over on Inside Higher Ed.

United States Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz said in a press release “Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars. It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away".

Interestingly, although JSTOR is the alleged victim of Swartz's activity, it is not the one seeking the prosecution: it's the United States Attorney’s Office. A  statement from JSTOR says: "We secured from Mr. Swartz the content that was taken, and received confirmation that the content was not and would not be used, copied, transferred, or distributed." Much of the content is under copyright, so distributing it would be illegal. But that hasn't happened.

On the Demand Progress website, executive director David Segal goes even further, stating that JSTOR does not support the prosecution: “It’s even more strange because JSTOR has settled any claims against Aaron, explained they’ve suffered no loss or damage, and asked the government not to prosecute”.

There has been a surge of support for Swartz, with over 15,000 people signing a petition on Demand Progress.

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