Hacker, activist, Internet wunderkind Aaron Swartz dead at 26

Aaron Swartz, hacker, information activist and developer, took his own life on Friday at age 26. Cory Doctorow has posted a eulogy for his friend at BoingBoing.net, and if you’re not familiar with his work, it’s a good place to start.

Swartz was a computer programmer who burst on the scene at only the age of 14, when his work as part of the RSS-DEV Working Group became part of the RSS 1.0 spec. He left Stanford while still an undergrad and founded his own software company, and was an influential early developer of the popular news and entertainment site Reddit.

Swartz was also an information activist who often worked outside the law and suffered the consequences. He downloaded and publicly released Federal court documents stored in the government’s PACER database, kicking off an investigation by the FBI. At the time of his death, Swartz was being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts for violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act in connection with his unauthorized access to MIT’s computer network to download a large amount of files from JSTOR, an online repository of academic journal articles.

Some have speculated that the specter of prosecution and imprisonment in connection with the JSTOR incident drove Swartz to suicide. Doctorow didn’t discount the possibility, but also noted that Swartz had suffered with depression. Swartz himself talked about his depression and suicidal ideation publicly in comments he made after parting company with Condé Nast following its acquisition of Reddit in 2006.

  • Lukas

    Even if he was suffering from depression to begin with, the prospect of spending 50 years in jail for doing something that any sane person would qualify as certainly illegal, but also certainly morally right, could not have helped.

    I hope the people who put him through this feel at least some small measure of shame right about now.

    • Shame for prosecuting a law breaker? They absolutely should not!

      No one should be happy about his demise though. He left too early for sure.

      • Except that what his “crime” barely registered as such. It certainly did not warrant 35 years in jail.

        • I’m not behind the prosecutors antics, motivations, or plans but he did a crime. They’re not wrong for prosecuting, is my point.

          • No, actually, he didn’t, and that’s the point. The prosecutors antics, motivations, or plans were to create a criminal charge out of whole cloth, and couch it in the nonsensical cyber terrorism rhetoric governments are wont to use. Schwartz’s exploit of JSTOR was a reckless inconvenience at best.

          • Maybe we’re reading different articles but from what I’ve read (because I don’t know a lick about this dude; never heard of him before this) he wasn’t a hacker but 2 different acts broke the law.

            +1 for the trumping up charges. I don’t agree with that but he wasn’t squeaky clean, not to paint him as a villain but I don’t agree he was a saint (in the legal sense of the word) either.

          • There is no need for false dichotomy. Schwartz’s status as saint or sinner is irrelevant to determining that the prosecution over stepped it’s bounds in an overzealous persecution of an act JSTOR did even consider a crime.


            “MIT operates an extraordinarily open network. Very few campus networks offer you a routable public IP address via unauthenticated DHCP and then lack even basic controls to prevent abuse. Very few captured portals on wired networks allow registration by any visitor, nor can they be easily bypassed by just assigning yourself an IP address. In fact, in my 12 years of professional security work I have never seen a network this open. In the spirit of the MIT ethos, the Institute runs this open, unmonitored and unrestricted network on purpose. Their head of network security admitted as much in an interview Aaron’s attorneys and I conducted in December. MIT is aware of the controls they could put in place to prevent what they consider abuse, such as downloading too many PDFs from one website or utilizing too much bandwidth, but they choose not to. MIT also chooses not to prompt users of their wireless network with terms of use or a definition of abusive practices.”



          • Good read.

            No false dichotomy here. Just noting from what I read he had done things worth prosecuting. Yes they went to far on that specific one.

            For clarity, I’m not arguing the prosecution was right in their reach just that they shouldn’t feel bad for attempting to prosecute. They definitely took it too far though.

  • dr.no

    He was prosecuted because he was helping wikileaks. anyone associated has been harassed at the border, courts, etc.

    The prosecutor will become next governor and nerds won’t be able do anything.