Internet Law

Ex Harvard Ethics Fellow Accused of Hacking Into MIT Network, Stealing 4M Docs with Intent to Share

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An activist programmer and former fellow at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics is facing federal criminal charges for allegedly hacking into the computer network at Massachusetts Institute of Technology between September of 2010 and January 2011 to access a subscription service that provides published academic articles.

Aaron Swartz, 24, who is perhaps best-known as a co-founder of the Reddit social media site, is accused of breaking into a MIT computer wiring closet, accessing the university network and successfully downloading more than 4 million JSTOR (short for Journal Storage) documents with the intent to share them online, according to the Boston Globe, the Bits blog of the New York Times and the Washington Post’s BlogPost.

He faces charges of computer fraud, wire fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer and recklessly damaging a protected computer in federal court in Massachusetts and could get as much as 35 years if convicted. Meanwhile, he has been released on $100,000 unsecured bond.

Demand Progress, a nonprofit group that Swartz also co-founded, said in a written statement posted online that he is “being charged with allegedly downloading too many scholarly journal articles from the Web.” Said executive director David Segal, “It’s like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library.”

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

In 2009, Swartz reportedly downloaded some 19 million court documents in an effort to make them available to the public online.

The Associated Press and IDG News also have stories.

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