MIT blocking release of Aaron Swartz's Secret Service files

My friend Aaron Swartz's suicide, just over six months ago, brought attention to MIT's role in his prosecution over downloading scholarly articles from their network. JSTOR, the service that hosted the files Aaron was accused of downloading, dropped its case against him, and it was widely reported that the only reason the Justice Department was able to go ahead with its threats of decades of time in prison for Aaron was MIT's insistence on pressing the case against him. MIT's administration was so shaken by the negative publicity following Aaron's death that they commissioned professor Hal Abelson (a good guy, in my experience) to investigate the university's role in his prosecution.

Now, though, MIT has blocked a Freedom of Information Act suit by Wired's Kevin Poulsen aimed at forcing the Secret Service to release their files on Aaron. A court recently ordered the Secret Service to stop screwing around and release Aaron's file, but before that could happen, MIT intervened, arguing that if the world could see the files, they would know the names of the MIT employees who insisted that Aaron deserved to go to jail for what amounted to checking too many books out of the library. MIT argues that its employees would potentially face retaliation (though not, presumably, threats of felony prosecutions, million-dollar fines, and decades in prison) if their names were known.

MIT claims it’s afraid the release of Swartz’s file will identify the names of MIT people who helped the Secret Service and federal prosecutors pursue felony charges against Swartz for his bulk downloading of academic articles from MIT’s network in 2011.

MIT argues that those people might face threats and harassment if their names become public. But it’s worth noting that names of third parties are already redacted from documents produced under FOIA.

I’ll post MIT’s motion here once it’s filed.

I have never, in fifteen years of reporting, seen a non-governmental party argue for the right to interfere in a Freedom of Information Act release of government documents. My lawyer has been litigating FOIA for decades, and he’s never encountered it either. It’s saddening to see an academic institution set this precedent.

I agree with Poulsen. This is a dark day in MIT's history. Today, the administration devalued the reputation of every student, alumnus and faculty member. The "MIT" on your resume is in danger of becoming a source of shame. MIT's stakeholders must demand better of their administration.

MIT Moves to Intervene in Release of Aaron Swartz’s Secret Service File [Kevin Poulsen/Wired]

Notable Replies

  1. It must be a high-level MIT figure to matter that much, otherwise they'd just cut and run, leaving some stooge out to hang alone.

  2. Good luck getting that donation out of me next year, anonymous freshman that calls as part of work-study from the bowels of Building 7.

  3. This is a good point. But I also think that MIT now realizes it lives in a world where information isn't just given out to sane people, but people who are unbalanced and angry.

    This is one of the things that we see when it comes to big corporations doing terrible things, they work hard to hide the people who make decisions that take people homes or they make it clear that some low level employee did it. They purposely defuse responsibility because people take losing their house personally.

    Some companies have changed the law to make formerly illegal acts legal, so their employees can say, "We were just following the law."

    The MIT people behind this action clearly wanted to "send a message" to people that these kind of actions will not be tolerated, and they never thought that there would be blowback for their actions. Once it looked like some of the blowback would go to individuals at MIT (vs. the nameless institution) they worked to block access of that information.

    MIT will use the "safety of the individual" as the reason, but it is also to protect the institution and defuse responsibility. Also, for all we know the people who were doing the actual pushing represented a committee that told him to "send a message" to "hackers." Just because I'm carrying out my bosses orders doesn't mean I agree with them, but if my signature is on the foreclosure notice that makes me the focus of someone's rage.

    After Redditt took it upon themselves to find the Boston Bomber and got it wrong, I worry about the unleashing of data to everyone.

    What I think should happen is that MIT needs to "send a message" back to the people that the people who pushed for these horrible penalties are not just getting off scott free. That policies have changed, people have been reprimanded. Some might not think that is good enough, but it is a start..

  4. This is exactly what I try to explain to people about my time in WW2.

  5. Isn't it all moot if names are redacted from the files anyway? Unless it one of the top echelon people, like the Dean or whatever.

    Institutions and people, using and abusing the law to crush the small and protect the powerful. Sigh.

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