US Government Ups Felony Count In JSTOR/Aaron Swartz Case From Four To Thirteen

from the trumped-up-kicks dept

Not much has been said about the Aaron Swartz case over the past year as the wheels of “justice” slowly grind their way to an eventual court date. Swartz, the executive director of Demand Progress, was charged with violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a catch-all designation for “computer activity the US government doesn't like.”

Swartz had accessed MIT's computer network to download a large number of files from JSTOR, a non-profit that hosts academic journal articles. US prosecutors claimed he “stole” several thousand files, but considering MIT offered this access for free on campus (and the files being digital), it's pretty tough to square his massive downloading with any idea of “theft.”

Not only that, but JSTOR was not the entity pressing charges. It had stopped the downloading and secured the “stolen” content, along with receiving assurances from Swartz that the files would not be distributed. Despite this, the feds felt compelled to arrest Swartz and charge him with four felony counts (one each for Wire Fraud, Computer Fraud, Theft of Information from a Computer and Recklessly Damaging a Computer). At this point, Swartz was looking at a possible 35-year sentence and over $1,000,000 in fines.

Whoever's pushing this case must really dislike Swartz and/or his activities. A “Superseding Indictment” (pdf) has been filed, raising the number of felony counts from four to thirteen. Seth Finkelstein at Infothought has a brief rundown of the new charges (h/t to Nate Hoffelder for the link):

There are now 13 felony counts in the new indictment, derived from claims of multiple instances of breaking those four laws. In specific:

Wire Fraud – 2 counts
Computer Fraud – 5 counts
Unlawfully Obtaining Information from a Protected Computer – 5 counts
Recklessly Damaging a Protected Computer – 1 count

It's beyond my pay grade to figure out how many years in prison that all could be, when taking into account the complexities of sentencing law. Let's leave it at a large scary number. Enough to ruin someone's life.

The new filing basically realleges all the original charges but ups the felony count by providing specific dates for each action, turning each marked date into its own felony charge. The allegations refer to Swartz's “repeated” actions as spanning several months, but the feds have pulled some arbitrary dates into the mix to add years and dollars onto his possible sentence. And, again, we have to ask: for what?

JSTOR only showed up because it was subpoenaed and if anyone's the “victim” here, it would be JSTOR. MIT has remained silent on the whole issue. So, either someone's got a deeper interest in this case than they're willing to admit publicly, or the feds found someone with enough “hacking” activity under their belt that they feel comfortable turning the defendant into an “example.” Or perhaps this is a belated payback for his thorough gaming of the PACER system during a “free trial” period, something the feds briefly investigated him for back in 2009. It went nowhere as the documents involved were public records, but it had to gall them a bit that he managed to download nearly 20 million pages of text, about 20% of the entire database, before being stopped. (The government likes to collect 8 cents a page for PACER documents, meaning Swartz's stunt “cost” it nearly $1.6 million, assuming you have no idea how to properly measure “costs.”)

So, how do the new charges stack up in terms of a sentence? Tough to say. Each of the charges carries the possibility of a fine and imprisonment of up to 10-20 years per felony. Depending on how many of the counts Swartz is found guilty of, the sentence could conceivably total 50+ years and fine in the area of $4 million. All this over publicly accessed research documents that JSTOR doesn't even feel the need to pursue further than it did.

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Comments on “US Government Ups Felony Count In JSTOR/Aaron Swartz Case From Four To Thirteen”

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63 Comments
Ninja (profile) says:

It’s a political persecution, harassment or whatever you wanna call it for his activities at Demand Progress. It’s like Assange, it’s not about rape or light rape or whatever absurd accusation they come up with it’s about silencing, punishing and stifling free speech. China is pretty experienced on that, the US should go seek counseling with them.

Unanimous Cow Herd (profile) says:

Re: Re:

And now he is gone. Bullied to death by a fascist AG and an institution of higher learning (lost all respect for MIT). Funny how Rupert Murdoch hasn’t spent a day behind bars for his technology breaches which were of PRIVATE information rather than public information like the stuff in JSTOR which is comprised of content originally meant for public and institutional libraries. Much of the research documented in the journals at JSTOR was publicly funded as well. Guess that access to JUSTICE and INFORMATION truly are only for the wealthy and well connected.

We have lost a great mind today. I am very sad.
R.I.P. Aaron Swartz

Jason says:

Re: Re:

No, the govt is putting him on trial for fraud and breaking into a restricted server room for unauthorized access to a network to continue to fake more and more network credentials in order to keep downloading too many articles after he’d already been caught breaking the rules.

I’m not a maximalist by any stretch, and I see a LOT of problems with the government’s case. But there are some relatively serious criminal allegations that surround what started as a harmless act. If the allegations are true, this guy pushed the mischief WAY too far.

teka (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Right, that is why this case is MIT & JSTOR Vs: Aaron Swartz..

Wait, neither of those groups, the ones who were theoretically trespassed upon or abused are interested in this case. JSTOR dealt with him to their satisfaction back when this all actually happened.

This entire case, and the new eager stacking of charges, is a way to punish someone that the prosecutors don’t like. They have managed to bend laws until “daring to be annoying to the government-WITH A COMPUTER” is at a higher level then rape.

Pjerky (profile) says:

Re: Punishment fits the crime?

These days the punishment almost never fit the crimes. Especially when it comes to technology, copyright, and patent related dealings. And even more especially when it is an individual, instead of an organization.

This is what happens when the old ignorant guard is faced with a new world they don’t understand and can’t adapt to. They make mountains out of tiny little lumps in the ground (not even molehills). I think the idiots behind this prosecution deserve to be locked up, not this guy.

This guy literally did everything he was entitled to with his access to the system. He didn’t commit any crime. And how the heck is he getting charged with damaging a computer? How is downloading information you have full access to damaging? He didn’t even distribute it. Morons! These charges are what is criminal.

PRMan (profile) says:

Re: Re: Punishment fits the crime?

Not that I support the severity and number of the government’s charges here, but he broke into a server closet at MIT and installed a laptop after being told that he was banned from the network.

Plain and simple, that is unauthorized access. Not the “I didn’t want to you mistakenly access that file but you are allowed to get to everything else” type, but the “you are not allowed at all” type.

Unlike the PACER incident where he did something they didn’t like but followed all the rules in doing so, here he acted like a criminal in his (albeit noble) quest of freeing access to public domain material.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Punishment fits the crime?

“Whatever happened to the punishment fitting the crime?”

It went away.

I actually met a guy in a bar sometime last year. We got to talking because he noticed I had quite a few visible tattoos and he asked if I’d been in prison. (I haven’t, although I’ve spent a night in county for what was essentially trumped up charges that were summarily dismissed.) I asked the question back and he told me had just been released the day before. I asked what he was in prison for.

He savagely and brutally murdered a man in cold blood. He was sentenced to 7 years and actually served 4. He was ordered to pay restitution to his victim’s family in the amount of $120,000. Upon his release, the court actually lowered that amount to $14,000. He had the court papers on his person showing his sentence and the restitution amount, then the actual time served and actual restitution needing to be paid (after it was lowered). Which he let me read.

I literally started laughing at that point. Which he didn’t find offensive in the least. He even knew what I was laughing about. The fact that he killed a man in cold blood and served 4 years. Yet you can be caught with what some would consider a “large” amount of drugs (but what is probably just enough for a person or two with large habits) and be sentenced for a decade or two (and actually serve the entire time). Ditto computer “hacking”.

We both remarked on the fact that the justice system has it’s priorities all wrong. At which point I bought him two rounds. (He was after all a nice guy.)

In other news, I ran into him a few months back. He now has a great job managing a bustling and growing local haircut business which cater’s to men only (yay! no chicks taking awhile to cut their hair!) and is making substantially decent money (more so than I do at my IT job). This time, drinks were on him.

But yay! Let’s hope they make an example this “hacker” for the horrible crimes he committed. /s

The eejit (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Punishment fits the crime?

It’s funny becaus eof the massively disproportionate sentencing between real crime (for there is no doubt that murder is a crime) and perceived crime (copyright infringement, drugs). Remember, that sentence mentioned is shorter than the one that could be received by Richard o’Dwyer or Kim Dotcom (should they ever be tried in a criminal court).

That is the part that is funny.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Punishment fits the crime?

I guess reading comprehension isn’t your strong suit. I said I met a guy in a bar who killed someone and got out in 4 years and had his restitution to the man’s family lowered to a ridiculously low amount.

What I found funny was the fact that he murdered someone and essentially got a slap on the wrist.

Yet this guy above is having the book thrown at him. Yet people like Jamie Thomas are having their lives financially ruined for downloading a CDs worth of songs. Etc etc etc.

If you don’t find our justice system’s sense of justice and sentences for various crimes to be remotely hilarious then you’re a robot. Or an idiot. Take your pick. But, do try and read everything that is stated and understand what is being said before you go off half cocked about someone’s comments.

Anonymous Coward says:

Sureal and distressing

They don’t like “Demand Progress” progress too much, do they? This has all symptoms of a witchhunt. It’s scary how that any criminal sanction can even be considered at all for what he’s alleged to have done.

Abusing servers resources to download beyond T.O.S. thresholds would land you to lifetime jail ? Is that really it ?

WTF is happening in the U.S. ?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Following link to her profile there’s this suprising bit:
“U.S. Attorney Ortiz?s top priorities include terrorism and national security, civil rights, and violent and white collar crime reduction – encompassing public corruption, financial and healthcare fraud. In 2010, she implemented the District?s first civil rights initiative, aimed at reinvigorating enforcement efforts of federal civil rights laws and increasing visibility among affected communities through extensive community outreach efforts.”

How can someone with a top priority “civil rights” be engaged in such nonsense leaves me clueless.

Chosen Reject (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

You didn’t read the whole thing did you? Let me repeat it here:

…Ortiz?s top priorities include terrorism and national security, civil rights, and violent and white collar crime reduction…

There’s some extraneous stuff that hides the connection, so I’ll remove it now:

…Ortiz?s top priorities include … civil rights … reduction…

Now it should make a lot more sense.

Anonymous Coward says:

its odd that you dont understand your own justice system, the prosecution has to make all possible charges, otherwise, once it gets to court, the defense will ask “why have you charged him on these files and not these files?”

it is also commom practice to arrest and indite on an initial smaller number of charges, and as you build your case, and more information come to light, again those have to be (attempted) to be prosecuted otherwise it leaves the defense a case for defending the charges, “you failed to charge him on this count, then why expect a conviction on this count?” …

not everyone is a linel huts.

The Groove Tiger (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Wow, you’re dumb.

They were charging him for all the files. They just decided now that different download dates mean different charges (instead of one charge for all the files). Next week they’ll double the charges, insisting that hacking in the morning is a separate crime than hacking in the afternoon.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re:

> its odd that you dont understand your own
> justice system, the prosecution has to make
> all possible charges, otherwise, once it gets
> to court, the defense will ask “why have you
> charged him on these files and not these files?”

Speaking as both an attorney and law enforcement officer who has worked in the criminal justice system most of my adult life, what you wrote above is nonsense.

> not everyone is a linel huts

But most people can at least spell Lionel Hutz correctly.

Tom Anderson says:

When the government is found to be in the wrong, why don’t they have to pay legal fees of the defendant? These spooks are not beating about the bush; they are pursuing him with a vendetta. For example, this quote: “Swartz simply hard-wired into the network and assigned himself two IP addresses.” Hard wired implies configuring in such a way that it cannot be changed. He hardly used a soldering iron, he simply connected in the usual soft-wired (i.e. easily demountable) fashion. Nobody calls connecting an Ethernet cable to a computer “hard-wired” unless they are insinuating something.

HKlang says:

Re: Re:

Aren’t you supposed to assign yourself two IP addresses? My MAC often says “Your computer has a self-assigned IP address and may not be able to connect to the internet”. And then it never can. But I am concerned about the “may” — if it ever did, would it be a crime? Now wait a minute. It’s all WiFi. I’m off the hook!

Or is the number of addresses? Two. Because it seems that the underlying message of the prosecution is “quantity begets quality”! One completely legal download okay, but 5000 is not. The internet is full of these paradoxes.

It reminds me of when my father and I were in top-floor Helsinki restaurant back in ’78 and we were served a plate of cheeses for dessert. A large plate with large cheeses. You weren’t supposed to eat them, but eat of them. But I tried to. Because I was 17 and hungry. And I still am.

HKlang says:

Re: Re:

Aren’t you supposed to assign yourself two IP addresses? My MAC often says “Your computer has a self-assigned IP address and may not be able to connect to the internet”. And then it never can. But I am concerned about the “may” — if it ever did, would it be a crime? Now wait a minute. It’s all WiFi. I’m off the hook!

Or is the number of addresses? Two. Because it seems that the underlying message of the prosecution is “quantity begets quality”! One completely legal download okay, but 5000 is not. The internet is full of these paradoxes.

It reminds me of when my father and I were in top-floor Helsinki restaurant back in ’78 and we were served a plate of cheeses for dessert. A large plate with large cheeses. You weren’t supposed to eat them, but eat of them. But I tried to. Because I was 17 and hungry. And I still am.

Richard Tanner says:

Re: Re:

Let’s charge the government now with Capital Murder. The government gets away with everything and it’s people like Aaron who end up standing up to them, and then guess what, they are dead. Suicide? Easy to make something seem that way; let’s all point the finger at the government now and let them stand trial.

Oh wait, let’s add about 5,000 counts of embezzlement to the list of counts to charge them with as well. (That’s just a very small number)

Nope, they’ll stand Trial, and go about ripping off citizens the very next day. Good ol’ system we have isn’t it.

FOG

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

So he deserves a judicial wrong with a near lifetime jail time because he did something wrong with a helmet on his face? He’s only accused of abusing server-power over what T.O.S. permits.

Pushing it a bit, breaking any web site Terms of Services can be land you criminal charges. I wonder how many new crimes and criminals this will create out of nowhere.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

> I doubt that the sentencing guidelines are
> more the six months and would be surprised
> if he got any jail time at all.

That’s a pretty stupid comment to make. If the guidelines for these charges only amounted to six months, then they wouldn’t be felonies in the first place, since the definition of a felony is any offense for which the punishment is a year or more in prison.

Six months = misdemeanor, genius.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

> I doubt that the sentencing guidelines are
> more the six months and would be surprised
> if he got any jail time at all.

That’s a pretty stupid comment to make. If the guidelines for these charges only amounted to six months, then they wouldn’t be felonies in the first place, since the definition of a felony is any offense for which the punishment is a year or more in prison.

Six months = misdemeanor, genius.

You are so stupid it’s laughable. Do you work here full-time?

Do you not understand there’s a difference between statutory minimum and maximum sentences, the sentencing guidelines and the actual sentence?

Your monkey ass is showing.

Anonymous Coward says:

only being done because it can. this is the sort of thing that happens when a government goes out of control and is staffed by people that are equally out of control as well! someone it would seem has a personal vendetta to wage against this guy and is using their high up position to carry it out. reminds me very much of the entertainment industries actually!

Rapnel (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The information controllers are out of control. Gasping for air and grasping at straws. There will be casualties and, unfortunately, Mr. Swartz is being lined up to be one.

Drugs, Knowledge and Entertainment: The Information Underground.

The pursuit of justice is being thwarted by criminal elements bent on control and the freedom to pursue it.

t says:

You’ve got to laugh at the people experiencing convulsions trying to rationalize this. Apparently, downloading academic journals, intending to release them to the public, is the greatest of crimes now. He changed.. his.. MAC address! He accessed a network… and downloaded a lot of files… and accidentally took down a few servers that couldn’t handle capacity.. without permission! That was pushing the “mischief” way, way, way too far. People got hurt, folks; prestigious institutions were offended. Better incarcerate this heathen a few decades! After all, how are people supposed to unquestionably respect academia and the publishing industry if we don’t punish naysayers to the full extent of sacred law? What if.. *gasp* information, research, content were publicly available, shared, distributed freely? Just imagine.. how much money would be lost!

Anonymous Coward says:

Overzealous prosecution: Steve Heymann

From various comments attributed to the family of Aaron Swartz, it appears the overzealous prosecution of Swartz was largely the work of Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Heymann, a specialist cybercrime prosecutor.

One assumes Heymann has a lucrative private sector career in his future. Carmen Ortiz is apparently Heymann’s boss.

Ortiz: “Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.”

That guy... says:

The guy committed crimes. He killed himself. He was going to make free and public the intellectual property of others as administered and hosted by Jstor. Why should any one feel bad for this guy. There’s no way he would have gotten fifty years. No way. He was a coward for stealing. He was a coward for being a baby about his indictment. He was a coward for killing himself.

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