A few thoughts on the death of hacktivist Aaron Swartz

Today I heard that hacktivist Aaron Swartz killed himself. He was just 26 years old. I met Aaron at various Open Government conferences. He was an incredibly intelligent original thinker who was committed to freedom of information and democracy. He went beyond the rhetoric and put his principles into action. While I was researching the Boston hacker scene for The Revolution Will Be Digitised he generously agreed to help me. I’ve decided to post that section here to give a sense of the man we’ve lost.

…I can count on one finger my Boston contacts. Fortunately that person is Aaron Swartz, who’s in the Cambridge tech/activist scene. He describes himself as a writer, activist and hacker and at twenty-five his CV is impressive: currently founder and director of a democracy campaign group, Demand Progress, he previously co-founded Reddit.com (a website for sharing news links) and was part of the original team to launch Creative Commons. At fourteen he co-authored the Really Simple Syndication (RSS 1.0) specification for publishing news updates. In the information war he’s participated in a few guerrilla campaigns which have accorded him his own FBI file (posted on his blog). In 2008, he hacked into a federal court library system to leak over 18 million public documents that the government had been charging citizens to access. Swartz only realised how much trouble he was in when the FBI started monitoring him. He got himself a lawyer, but luckily the New York Times got on the case and made him something of a cause célèbre. The FBI eventually backed off: it looked bad to spend taxpayers’ money going after a kid for making public records more publicly available.

Aaron has set me up with a room in a place called the Acetarium but even standing outside the door on this cold November night I can’t tell if it’s a hostel, a hotel or a house. I telephone the proprietor Benjamin Mako Hill and in a few minutes I see pale legs jumping down the stairs. He’s known as ‘Mako’, he tells me, and he has an impish, Irish look with a pointy Pan-like beard and big mischievous blue eyes with a ring through his left eyebrow. He’s wearing an American flag do-rag and a yellow cycling jacket. He’s brimming with energy and hops up the stairs two at a time. On the landing is a sign: ‘Shoes and pants off please’. I leave mine (shoes that is) at the door and head in.

Inside, over some home-made vegetable dumplings, I meet Mako’s wife and some of the other residents: a twenty-year-old couchsurfer from North Carolina, a freelance software programmer in the spare room and a guinea pig whose owner has gone travelling. Mako himself is a scholar at MIT’s media lab specialising in sociology and online communities and he’s an active member of the Free Software Foundation. He sounds exactly the sort of person who can put me in touch with the people I need to talk to, but when I start asking questions he clams up. ‘I’m not into that scene,’ he says tersely, tapping his foot. ‘I don’t know any of those people.’

Later that evening, Aaron comes over to the Acetarium and tells me this used to be the original Reddit offices. He passed them to Mako when Reddit was bought by Condé Nast and he and the other founders moved out to San Francisco to live the dream. He says California wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Neither was the office job at Condé Nast. He’s since been fired, dropped out of Stanford and is now a fellow at the Center for Ethics at Harvard University as well as running his campaign group. He has an intense curiosity that lasers into whatever happens to interest him at any given moment, but the attention is short, and soon he’s off delving into something else. Fortunately his immediate interest is my ‘quest’, so he grabs a nearby laptop to see what he can find online. A quick glance of Tyler Watkins’ and David House’s social networks reveals they’re both linked to someone called Danny Clark. It’s a long shot, but I ask Mako if he knows Danny Clark. His response is straightforward enough: ‘Never heard of him.’

‘But he’s on your list of LinkedIn contacts,’ says Aaron, now perusing Mako’s profile, and I remind Mako there’s no privacy on the Internet. He reiterates that he’s ‘not involved in any of this, and I don’t want anything to do with it’.

‘What’s wrong with answering her questions?’ Aaron counters.

‘You don’t understand, there’s been all kinds of people round here.’

‘I understand completely. I was investigated by the FBI, don’t forget. That doesn’t mean you can’t talk. We’re not in a police state yet.’

I decide not to press my host any further, but I’m struck by his guardedness. Clearly people are scared, and I begin to worry if I’ll get anything at all out of this trip. Maybe to make up for his reticence, Mako invites me to come along to a pub in Harvard Square where every Sunday he organises a social evening for a group of techie friends studying or working at MIT or Harvard. I meet all sorts of interesting people including a woman working on the human genome project, but the most interesting of all is another Brit who tells me he lives with Danny Clark…

While I was in Boston, Aaron told me he was working on another ‘project’ which I found out later was his guerrilla action to liberate academic articles. In July 2011, he was arrested and charged with downloading 4.8 million academic articles between September 2010 and January 2011 from JSTOR, a research subscription service offering digitised copies of academic journals and documents. He was accused of breaking into a computer wiring closet on MIT’s campus and downloading the documents which prosecutors say he intended to share online. Swartz turned himself in and pleaded not guilty to charges including wire fraud, computer fraud and unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer. He was released on a $100,000 unsecured bond and faced up to thirty-five years in prison, if convicted. In September 2012, federal prosecutors added even more charges.

Aaron wasn’t a dangerous person who hurt people. His mission was to free public information. Shamefully for that he was targeted by certain justice officials in what amounted to more of a persecution than a prosecution. I think the war on hackers has gone on long enough. Officials need to understand that criminalising the best and the brightest is not good public policy.

More on Aaron Swartz here and here.

2 Responses to “A few thoughts on the death of hacktivist Aaron Swartz”

  1. gyges says:

    A week or so ago, I contacted my local University library with a view to getting access to the sort of data that Aaron was trying to liberate. The University told me that the publishers of the journals only allow access to students and employees … but I’m sure you and your readers have heard all of this many times before.

  2. Heather,

    I’ll have to get your book to see the context of your research here, but it sounds to me as if you are citing your interview with Aaron Swartz to set up an implication of Danny Clark as the person who in fact did help Bradly Manning with the US government server hack and/or the transfer of those files to WikiLeaks.

    You must know that the grand jury asked David House, one of the MIT hackers who invited Manning to the open house party for BUILDS, what he knew about Clark’s breakfast with Manning the following morning.

    I’m also wondering if at the end of the day you’re implying that Swartz helped Manning — or helped Clark without realizing he was helping Manning. Or what the story is. I’ve thought a lot about it and laid it out on my blog:

    http://3dblogger.typepad.com/wired_state/2013/02/did-aaron-swartz-help-bradley-manning-hack-for-wikileaks.html

    I read through the posts at Empty Wheel that also ask a lot of questions about the alleged overreach of federal prosecutors and the possible fishing expedition on WikiLeaks. But on the way to asking all those questions, they don’t seem to realize, as you don’t, that in fact you are implicating these MIT hackers. They aren’t under arrest, but at least one, Jacob Appelbaum, in this circle, was under investigation by the grand jury.

Leave a Reply