Mike Isaac

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MIT Responds to Death of Activist Aaron Swartz, Begins Internal Investigation


Photo Credit: Jacob Appelbaum

Two days after Internet activist Aaron Swartz took his own life, the President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has issued a public response and will launch an internal investigation looking into the university’s role in the ordeal which first began in 2010.

“I want to express very clearly that I and all of us at MIT are extremely saddened by the death of this promising young man who touched the lives of so many,” wrote president L. Rafael Reif in a statement emailed to members of the press on Sunday. “It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy.”

The university has come under widespread criticism in the wake of Swartz’s death. Swartz was first indicted on charges of computer fraud in 2011, after allegedly downloading approximately 5 million academic papers and files from the online service JSTOR, using MIT’s on-campus network.

While JSTOR eventually dropped the charges against Swartz after he handed over his hard drives, the U.S. attorney’s office continued prosecuting Swartz.

MIT is considered to have tacitly supported the decision byU.S. attorneys Carmen Ortiz and Steve Heymann to continue pursuing Swartz’s criminal prosecution, which left him facing penalties of upwards of 30 years in prison and $1 million in fines.

Swartz’s family issued a statement on Saturday, placing some of the blame for Swartz’s death on both MIT and the U.S. Attorney’s office.

“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach,” the statement read. “Decisions made by officials in the U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.”

The university will conduct a self-audit of its role in the events of the past two years, according to president Reif.

“I have asked Professor Hal Abelson to lead a thorough analysis of MIT’s involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in fall 2010 up to the present,” he wrote. “I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took. I will share the report with the MIT community when I receive it.”

Abelson is a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, and one of the founding members of both the Creative Commons and the Free Software Foundation.

The U.S. Attorney’s office has not responded to a request for comment.

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik