PACER capers: the sordid story of America's for-pay lawbooks

Timothy B Lee has a gripping and thorough account of the work to tear down the PACER paywall, which requires that Americans pay $0.10 per page to access court files, which are necessary to understanding and interpreting the law. Aaron Swartz was investigated by the FBI for his part in extracting millions of these public domain documents from behind their paywall and making them public, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. The whole story includes some pretty shocking truth about the privacy trainwreck within PACER, which has not fulfilled its duty to redact personal information from public files; and PACER's illegal profit-making rate-hikes that go far beyond recouping the cost of running the service.

Swartz started his downloading in early September. On September 29, court administrators noticed the Sacramento library racked up a $1.5 million bill. The feds shut down the library's account.

"Apparently PACER access at the main library I was crawling from has been shut down, presumably because of the crawl," Swartz told Schultze and Malamud in an e-mail that day.

The courts issued a vague statement about suspending the program "pending an evaluation." A few weeks later, a court official revealed law enforcement had been called to investigate the suspected security breach. Malamud told us that after Swartz fessed up, Malamud grilled him to understand whether any laws had been broken. Malamud believes the fact that neither PACER nor the library had terms of service prohibiting offsite downloading made it likely Swartz's actions were within the law.

Malamud thought they would be in an even stronger position if they could demonstrate the value of the data Swartz extracted, so he began an intensive privacy audit. For most of October, Malamud worked around the clock searching for documents containing Social Security numbers and other sensitive information. Out of the 2.7 million documents Swartz downloaded—about 700GB of data in all—Malamud discovered about 1,600 with privacy issues. He then sent a report to court administrators disclosing the poorly redacted documents he had found and encouraging the courts to examine the rest of the documents in PACER to ferret out similar privacy problems.

The inside story of Aaron Swartz's campaign to liberate court filings [Timothy B. Lee/Ars Technica]