Why Did The Secret Service Take Over Aaron Swartz's Case Two Days Before He Was Arrested

from the makes-no-sense dept

Many have noted that the US Attorneys had made a new filing on the day that Aaron Swartz committed suicide. While the filing may look like just a standard procedural filing, some are pointing out that it highlights some highly unusual activity in the case. It had to do with Swartz’s motion to get some of the evidence blocked from being used in the case, over questions concerning how it was collected. But one of the key things that come out is that, for unexplained reasons, the Secret Service took over the case just two days before Aaron was arrested:

MIT and JSTOR conferred regarding methods to prevent excessive downloading. Timeline at 3-4. On December 26, 2010, there was another episode of excessive downloading, which MIT personnel did not learn of until on or about January 3, 2011. On the morning of January 4, 2011, at approximately 8:00 am, MIT personnel located the netbook being used for the downloads and decided to leave it in place and institute a packet capture of the network traffic to and from the netbook. Timeline at 6. This was accomplished using the laptop of Dave Newman, MIT Senior Network Engineer, which was connected to the netbook and intercepted the communications coming to and from it. Id. Later that day, beginning at 11:00 am, the Secret Service assumed control of the investigation.

As Emptywheel points out, it doesn’t make any sense for the Secret Service to be involved in such an issue:

According to the Secret Service, they get involved in investigations with:

  • Significant economic or community impact
  • Participation of organized criminal groups involving multiple districts or transnational organizations
  • Use of schemes involving new technology

Downloading scholarly articles is none of those things.

The same filing shows that MIT allowed all of this to happen despite no warrant, court order, or subpoena — just handing over all sorts of info.

The disclosure took place only after the MIT General Counsel’s Office approved the disclosure of the information to law enforcement authorities even in the absence of a warrant or court order or subpoena – and at a time when MIT personnel were acting as government agents – and in contravention of MIT policy that such information, which exceeded that found in bank records or telephone toll records, would be disclosed only upon the receipt of lawful court orders or subpoenas, i.e., process complying with the Stored Communications Act, 18 U.S.C. ?2701 et seq. See Section IV, infra. In a separate email from Halsall to S/A Picket on January 8, 2011, Halsall told Pickett that he “hop[ed] to have the pcap/flows/videos/logs all in by to me Monday, possibly sooner – if you don’t already have a copy of the video or pcap [packet capture], I’ll make sure you get one.” Exhibit 2. No warrant or court order has been provided to counsel which would evidence the government’s having, even post-interception, acquired the contents of the warrantless interceptions by seeking judicial authorization as required.

As more and more people are looking at the details of what went down in arresting and pressuring Aaron, the case just looks worse and worse.

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Comments on “Why Did The Secret Service Take Over Aaron Swartz's Case Two Days Before He Was Arrested”

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JonJon (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Aaron’s death unfortunately will remain a big loss for our civilization progress towards freedom of information. While we know the secret service took over this case, and we know the type of things the secret services are trained to do (eliminate people among other things), it astonishes me that people take it for granted that Aaron actually chose to take his own life.

An activist that refuses a plea bargain and who gets unjustly prosecuted becomes an instant hero… Think Nelson Mandela, Tim deChristopher etc… Their cause takes a new dimension and lives stronger so long as they don’t take their own life. The government was aware that when Aaron rejected the plea bargain, they had an issue. A very serious one indeed. The only choice remaining was to make him look like a weak and depressed young hacker who couldn’t take responsibility for his acts of “vandalism” and who took his own life. This is how mainstream media basically portrayed him.

Now, outside of the geek-activist world, no one remembers him or even knows who he was. If they do, they just think… Oh that smart-ass who thought he could change the world by act of digital vandalism but who didn’t know stealing is stealing? Sad but someone as courageous as Aaron needs to step up to the plate despite the risks involved… who’s willing to do it? Very very few people. If you do, make sure you publicly declare on Fb, Twitter, and your blog that you are not going to commit suicide. May not help obviously if you die in an accident…

Information secrecy is highly valued by the powers that be, so no activist should underestimate this fact and take the huge risk of acting solo like Aaron did. A group is much harder to attack that one key figure. Good luck people… I for myself, prefer to let civilization shape itself one person at a time. It’s a long process compared to hacktivism, but at least it will cost no lives (yes, call me a coward, I’m no Aaron Swartz).

SolkeshNaranek says:

So many questions...

I am wondering if we are going to discover that the copyright industry had a hand in this at some point.

In much the same way the Megaupload case was improperly investigated and is being currently managed, so it would seem the Aaron Swartz case was improperly handled.

Either the prosecutor in this case is far out of her area of expertise (technology wise), or she was being “pushed” by an outside interest that needed another talking point about copyright theft and “piracy”.

In either case, a bright and creative person has been lost to us. This is a loss that we cannot afford to have happen again. The government cries out for the best and brightest minds, and when they find one this is what happens.

BTW, there are petitions already in place at the “We the People” site which you can sign asking to fire the two DOJ prosecutors involved in this sad mess.

Arsik Vek (profile) says:

Re: Re: So many questions...

Unless I’m mistaken…the White House doesn’t have the legal authority to fire prosecutors, something to do with separation of powers?

Federal prosecutors, or US Attorneys, are appointed by the President, and members of the Department of Justice, a component of the Executive Branch.

The President may or may not be able to remove them, I’m not sure what that process looks like, but it’s definitelyn ot a seperation of powers issue.

NeedNoStinkingUserName (profile) says:

Re: So many questions...

I think you’ll find the outside interest doesn’t deal with the prosecutor. The outsider has influence at a far higher level and instructions come down to the lower pay grades from the very top of the food chain. The entire federal govt and both political parties are totally corrupted and beholden to the banks and major corps. . and the message to the 99% is “fuck with us and see what happens!! This sucker’s gunna blow and we’re getting out with ours . . and by “ours” we mean “yours” !!”

As to Kim Dotcom / Megaupload he may be lucky and avoid a usa based court case. The illegality carried out by the incompetant NZ police and the clowns at GCSB,would be humourous if it wasn’t so serious. Performing like obedient poodles at the F.I.B.’s urging the whole conspiracy – because lets not forget, thats what it is – has come badly unstuck in the court of Justice Winkelman, who has shown herself to be no pushover and has copped no crap from “law” enforcement. The extradition case may well flounder on the bench of the good Judge.

shane (profile) says:

Government, Banks, IP, Limited Liability

While this falls well short of an assassination, such things have never been out of the question for those who have a vested interest in power.

This is not some weird little accident of politics and personality disorder. This is the result of a consciously constructed system whereby our nominally democratic republic has been turned into a centrally controlled state. Banks create and loosely control money, which we are required by law to use to pay government taxes. This cooperation between private industry and the state gives the banks the upper hand, and undermines all other attempts at democratic rule.

As if that were not enough, IP then allows the large corporations that work with banks to own ideas and concepts. We don’t “censor speech” and violate long respected civil rights. Oh no. We protect our “Intellectual Property” rights – rights that have ever been used to silence critique of the government wherever such rights exist.

Finally, we protect the architects of such policies behind a wall of limited liability. They own. They command. But they are not accountable.

This is unconscionable.

ChrisB (profile) says:

Re: Democracy

I’m convinced a president’s only role is to stop things from getting worse. He is one man against a state of millions of government employees, millions of contractors and lobbyists, and billions in spending. A strong president can stand up to (or distract) the relentless corrupting affect of that much power and money in one place. A weak president cannot stop the momentum. I love listening to Obama speak, but I think he has no control at all.

trish says:

The luddites, the old guard, have been waging a war on technology. They arrogantly believe that anything new needs to be squashed, especially since technology today is empowering people to have a lot more ‘say’ in the way their government functions. In certain ‘democracies’, the freedom trumpet is touted, it seems, to make the old guard feel good about themselves and about false ideals they won’t ever abide to. They can make themselves feel better than those ‘other countries’ who take their citizens’ liberties away in the same manner.
It’s really incredibly tragic what this man must have been through. To know that you are the powerless victim of the relentless and over-reaching oppression of a monolith whose reason for existence is supposed to be to protect you and your rights.
Yes, you have recourse and are not really powerless… but the judge is in the pocket of the prosecutor as mentioned above (they probably play golf on weekends together). Your lawyer costs a fortune and you have no financial backing (billions of tax-payer dollars are sitting on the other side of the table, though.) And the charges against you are a bunch of BS, specifically BS which is all about the government trying to get its citizenry to shut their eyes, mouths and ears about what is going on around them.
This is the new tyranny. It’s human nature to want power and control, and the types of people who go after power are exactly the ones who like wielding it, and they don’t want to lose that power.
But… it’s hard to exert control and power over a people who are too educated, too informed, and too sure of their own rights. As it’s going, how are Americans to become anything but cowards in the face of their own government, or be driven to madness and suicide.

Anonymous Coward says:

The same filing shows that MIT allowed all of this to happen despite no warrant, court order, or subpoena — just handing over all sorts of info.

Why would MIT be hostile toward law enforcement? If I was videotaping a parade and law enforcement asked to see the tape, as a crime was committed nearby at the time I was filming; I’d give it to them. Why the hell not?

DCX2 says:

Re: Re:

As a person video taping a parade, you’re a private person, you own the copyright on everything that happened, etc.

However, MIT is more like a service provider. Service providers have a duty to protect those who they are providing the service to; after all, what good is the 4th amendment if the phone companies just roll over and let the government install wiretaps directly into the system? Specifically, MIT has a policy that requires a subpoena or warrant before releasing personal information. http://tech.mit.edu/V132/N46/swartz.html

Philip Cohen (user link) says:

Wire fraud?

?Wire fraud?? Did someone mention “wire fraud”? The greatest knowing criminal facilitator of literally massive wire fraud on consumers the world over is eBay Inc, and the DoJ appears to be totally uninterested in doing anything about that major fraud activity ? http://bit.ly/N1nTlc

It must have something to do with the ratio of the size of the perpetrator to the victim: large corporation perpetrator, small victim(s): ignore; small perpetrator, large corporation victim: 30 years ? After all, the USSC says, corporations are people?LOL

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I blame the large pool of lawyers appointed to the DoJ who had been working for the copyright industry for years.
I blame judges who before they were appointed were lobbyists trying to change copyright law to benefit corporations at the expense of the public yet again.
I blame a system that no longer raises any concerns when people who are obviously biased are placed in top positions and given the authority to run wild.

commenter8 (profile) says:

White House Petitions

Prosecutors turned down Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz’s request for plea deal over MIT hacking case TWO DAYS before his suicide


Lawyer says he warned prosecutors that Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz was suicidal


White House petition to fire US Attprney Carmen Ortiz for her misconduct in this case


The petition to fire US Attorney Carmen Ortiz has already exceeded the 25,000 signatures needed to get a response from the White House.

Here’s a new petition to fire Assistant US Attorney Steve Heymann:


White House petition to limit copyrights to a maximum of 10 years


G Thompson (profile) says:

Is it Just me or has America gone fucking crazy?
Westboro Baptist Church Threatens To Picket Aaron Swartz’s Funeral

Though luckily Anonymous is planning to do what any normal person would after reading the above tripe from this Abrahamic offshoot Cult-like organisation. STOP THEM!

They are calling it Operation #opAngel and other than the part about targeting the DoJ (which is just posturing and silly) EVERYONE should be involved!

Anonymous original News Release –> http://pastebin.com/PKm921c9

none says:

MIT is a place where a lot of people with secret, top-secret and other classifications work. No classified work is done on campus (Lincoln Labs is for that) but people who work at Lincoln Labs and other places with classification roam freely on campus.

Or, put another way, anybody who breaks into a network closet, for whatever reason, is going to be investigated by the Secret Service.

Hindsight (being twenty-twenty and all) shows that the reason for breach of a network closet being utterly benign (in fact, laudable) doesn’t obviate the need for the Secret Service (who is tasked under the Patriot Act with investigating cybercrimes) to make certain that real shenanigans aren’t underway.

This does not excuse the aggressive prosecution by the Justice Department: that’s an entirely separate issue.

Freeman1776 (user link) says:

Assassination, business as usual

The government has the power to gag people who threaten to expose government secrets, but since John Kennedy’s assassination, it has become common practice to gag people thorough “government assisted suicide”.

So many whistle blowers and people who threaten to blow the whistle have met with accidents, suicides, and disappearances, that the numbers are mounting into the thousands. Surely by now, people are starting to catch on.

Aaron Swartz is but one of the latest to fall victim to the government’s “gag” method.

shava23 (profile) says:

Perhaps a little better research is called for?

A simple web search comes up with this from the Secret Service recruiting site’s history “about” page:


In 2001, the USA PATRIOT Act mandated the Secret Service to establish a nationwide network of Electronic Crimes Task Forces (ECTFs), a network bringing together not only federal, state and local law enforcement, but also prosecutors, private industry and academia aimed at combating technology based crimes. The common purpose is the prevention, detection, mitigation and aggressive investigation of attacks on the nation’s financial and critical infrastructures.

Effective March 1, 2003, the Secret Service was transferred from the Department of the Treasury to the newly established Department of Homeland Security. In 2009, the Secret Service made nearly 2,866 criminal arrests for counterfeiting, cyber investigations and other financial crimes, 98% of which resulted in convictions, and removed more than $182 million in counterfeit U.S. currency from circulation.

Today, the Secret Service continues to protect our nation?s leaders, visiting world leaders and the integrity of the nation?s financial systems. With a rich tradition of service to the nation and its people, the agency continues to evolve, adding a variety of duties to our original charter.

(my emphasis)

Even before PATRIOT, the Secret Service was investigating crimes where there were questions of Social Security numbers being used for fraud and a wide variety of other issues beyond what you list. Your list is abbreviated and I have no idea where you got it but it’s hearsay quality. Plugging in Secret Service investigatory powers into Google blew it to pieces in fifteen seconds.

Why fan the flames falsely? There’s so much valid to do here. You are going to discredit good work.

I was Aaron’s friend. I appeared on a panel on privacy with him at the MIT Museum on privacy. I was in the Berkman blog group with him. Various stuff. Before I knew him personally I knew him as this genius kid on email lists and such since he was a teenager.

I mourn him terribly. The day of his funeral I and some others were in front of the Boston Federal Courthouse holding vigil.

But there’s no reason for this kind of poorly researched thing — it does no good in the community in our out of hacktivism. Be rigorous and non-violent, if you want to honor what Aaron did, be impeccable.

I’d post the same on Empty Wheel, but they seem to have closed comments over there.

Le Sigh.

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