kottke.org posts about Aaron Swartz

StrongboxMay 15 2013

The New Yorker introduces their Strongbox, a way to anonymously send files to editors at the magazine.

Strongbox is a simple thing in its conception: in one sense, it's just an extension of the mailing address we printed in small type on the inside cover of the first issue of the magazine, in 1925, later joined by a phone number (in 1928-it was BRyant 6300) and e-mail address (in 1998). Readers and sources have long sent documents to the magazine and its reporters, from letters of complaint to classified papers. (Joshua Rothman has written about that history and the magazine's record of investigative journalism.) But, over the years, it's also become easier to trace the senders, even when they don't want to be found. Strongbox addresses that; as it's set up, even we won't be able to figure out where files sent to us come from. If anyone asks us, we won't be able to tell them.

Strongbox is based on DeadDrop, an open source app built by Aaron Swartz.

Aaron Swartz, rest in peaceJan 12 2013

According to his uncle, internet hacker and activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide yesterday. He was 26 years old.

The accomplished Swartz co-authored the now widely-used RSS 1.0 specification at age 14, was one of the three co-owners of the popular social news site Reddit, and completed a fellowship at Harvard's Ethics Center Lab on Institutional Corruption. In 2010, he founded DemandProgress.org, a "campaign against the Internet censorship bills SOPA/PIPA."

John Gruber has a short remembrance:

He had an enormous intellect -- again, a brilliant mind -- but also an enormous capacity for empathy. He was a great person. I'm dumbfounded and heartbroken.

And Cory Doctorow has a longer tribute to his friend at Boing Boing:

I met Aaron when he was 14 or 15. He was working on XML stuff (he co-wrote the RSS specification when he was 14) and came to San Francisco often, and would stay with Lisa Rein, a friend of mine who was also an XML person and who took care of him and assured his parents he had adult supervision. In so many ways, he was an adult, even then, with a kind of intense, fast intellect that really made me feel like he was part and parcel of the Internet society, like he belonged in the place where your thoughts are what matter, and not who you are or how old you are.

I didn't know Aaron very well, but this is just terrible. My thoughts are with his friends and family.

Update: A powerful post from Larry Lessig, blasting the prosecutor for his overzealous pursuit of the US government's case against Swartz.

Here is where we need a better sense of justice, and shame. For the outrageousness in this story is not just Aaron. It is also the absurdity of the prosecutor's behavior. From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. The "property" Aaron had "stolen," we were told, was worth "millions of dollars" - with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime. But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed.

Aaron Swartz indicted on charges of "wire fraud, computer fraud" etc.Jul 19 2011

Swartz is known around these parts for being a programmer, long-time blogger, early employee of Reddit, and legal enthusiast. Nick Bilton, writing for the NY Times Bits blog:

Aaron Swartz, a 24-year-old programmer and online political activist, was indicted Tuesday in Boston on charges that he stole over four million documents from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and JSTOR, an archive of scientific journals and academic papers. (Read the full indictment.)

The charges were filed by the United States Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, Carmen M. Ortiz, and could result in up to 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine.

In a press release, Ms. Ortiz's office said that Mr. Swartz broke into a restricted area of M.I.T. and entered a computer wiring closet. Mr. Swartz apparently then accessed the M.I.T. computer network and stole millions of documents from JSTOR.

The full indictment is here (PDF, via @delfuego). Non-PDF version is here. The whole thing is worth a read for the technical detail of how the "hack" was allegedly perpetrated:

26. This time around, Swartz circumvented MIT's guest registration process altogether when he connected to MIT's computer network. By this point, Swartz was familiar with the IP addresses available to be assigned at the switch in the restricted network interface closet in the basement of MIT's Building 16. Swartz simply hard-wired into the network and assigned himself two IP addresses. He hid the Acer laptop and a succession of external storage drives under a box in the closet, so that they would not be obvious to anyone who might enter the closet. January 4 through 6, 2011

27. On January 4, 2011, Aaron Swartz was observed entering the restricted basement network wiring closet to replace an external hard drive attached to his computer.

28 On January 6, 2011, Swartz returned to the wiring closet to remove his computer equipment. This time he attempted to evade identification at the entrance to the restricted area. As Swartz entered the wiring closet, he held his bicycle helmet like a mask to shield his face, looking through ventilation holes in the helmet. Swartz then removed his computer equipment from the closet, put it in his backpack, and left, again masking his face with the bicycle helmet before peering through a crack in the double doors and cautiously stepping out.

Here's a statement from Demand Progress, an organization founded by Swartz, about the case (via @aaronsw). This is a very different take from the indictment.

Moments ago, Aaron Swartz, former executive director and founder of Demand Progress, was indicted by the US government. As best as we can tell, he is being charged with allegedly downloading too many scholarly journal articles from the Web. The government contends that downloading said articles is actually felony computer hacking and should be punished with time in prison.

"This makes no sense," said Demand Progress Executive Director David Segal; "it's like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library."

"It's even more strange because the alleged victim has settled any claims against Aaron, explained they've suffered no loss or damage, and asked the government not to prosecute," Segal added.

James Jacobs, the Government Documents Librarian at Stanford University, also denounced the arrest: "Aaron's prosecution undermines academic inquiry and democratic principles," Jacobs said. "It's incredible that the government would try to lock someone up for allegedly looking up articles at a library."

JSTOR, the document storage service allegedly accessed by Swartz, released a statement on the case (via @delfuego):

Last fall and winter, JSTOR experienced a significant misuse of our database. A substantial portion of our publisher partners' content was downloaded in an unauthorized fashion using the network at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of our participating institutions. The content taken was systematically downloaded using an approach designed to avoid detection by our monitoring systems.

The downloaded content included over 4 million articles, book reviews, and other content from our publisher partner's academic journals and other publications; it did not include any personally identifying information about JSTOR users.

We stopped this downloading activity, and the individual responsible, Mr. Swartz, was identified. 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.

The criminal investigation and today's indictment of Mr. Swartz has been directed by the United States Attorney's Office.

As for what Swartz was planning to do with all these documents, it's not difficult to guess...he's done something like this before (this isn't actually a very good guess...see the update below):

Those courts, with the help of the Government Printing Office, had opened a free trial of Pacer at 17 libraries around the country. Mr. Malamud urged fellow activists to go to those libraries, download as many court documents as they could, and send them to him for republication on the Web, where Google could get to them.

Aaron Swartz, a 22-year-old Stanford dropout and entrepreneur who read Mr. Malamud's appeal, managed to download an estimated 20 percent of the entire database: 19,856,160 pages of text.

Then on Sept. 29, all of the free servers stopped serving. The government, it turns out, was not pleased.

A notice went out from the Government Printing Office that the free Pacer pilot program was suspended, "pending an evaluation." A couple of weeks later, a Government Printing Office official, Richard G. Davis, told librarians that "the security of the Pacer service was compromised. The F.B.I. is conducting an investigation."

Lawyers for Mr. Malamud and Mr. Swartz told them that they appeared to have broken no laws, noting nonetheless that it was impossible to say what angry government officials might do.

Twice bitten, indictment? Is that how the saying goes?

Update: This is a more accurate guess as to what Swartz wanted with the JSTOR documents: analyse the documents as part of his on-going work with "the corrupting influence of big money on institutions"...and *not* to free non-copyrighted information from an inefficient gatekeeper as with the PACER data. From the front page of his web site.

He is the author of numerous articles on a variety of topics, especially the corrupting influence of big money on institutions including nonprofits, the media, politics, and public opinion. In conjunction with Shireen Barday, he downloaded and analyzed 441,170 law review articles to determine the source of their funding; the results were published in the Stanford Law Review. From 2010-11, he researched these topics as a Fellow at the Harvard Ethics Center Lab on Institutional Corruption.

The Stanford Law Review article is available here.

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