Former Harvard Fellow Charged With Hacking At MIT

By Jess Bidgood

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Jul. 19, 2011 (Updated Jul. 20, 2011)

BOSTON — A Cambridge man is facing federal charges of hacking into a computer storage system at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and stealing four million academic articles.

Aaron Swartz. (Wikimedia Commons)

U.S. prosecutors say Aaron Swartz, a 24-year-old Internet activist, broke into a computer wiring closet a basement at MIT and, over a period of several months, used a laptop to automatically download millions of pages of academic journals, newspaper articles, editorials and more.

Those articles allegedly came from JSTOR, an online database that stores and catalogues academic literature and news content. Many universities pay for access to such databases, allowing affiliated students and professors to log in and download resources.  Prosecutors allege Swartz intended to put the documents he downloaded from JSTOR on file-sharing websites.

Once a fellow at Harvard's Insititue of Ethics, Swartz has focused his work in recent years on how money influences institutions and has pushed for greater public access to information.

Swartz is also the founder of Demand Progress, which is, according to its website, "a 500,000-member online activism group that advocates for civil liberties, civil rights, and other progressive causes."

In a statement, Demand Progress's executive director David Segal called the indictment "bizarre."

"This makes no sense. It's like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library," Segal said.

Segal also said JSTOR had already settled its claims with Swartz and asked the government not to prosecute.

Swartz is currently free on $100,000 bail. If convicted, he could face up to 35 years in prison and/or a $1,000,000 fine.

Correction: This article was updated on Jul. 20 to remove the reference to Aaron Swartz being a co-founder of Reddit; although Swartz's personal website calls him such, Reddit disputes it.

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