At MIT Memorial For Aaron Swartz, Criticism And Introspection

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — At a memorial for the late Internet activist Aaron Swartz Tuesday night at MIT, the university came under fire from friends, family and colleagues of Swartz.

Swartz, who committed suicide in January as he was awaiting trial on charges he downloaded millions of documents from the JSTOR archive of academic journals that he accessed through MIT’s server, was never enrolled at MIT, but memorial attendees strongly condemned how the school treated him.

When he opened the spoken tributes, Joi Ito, who runs the MIT Media Lab, tried to keep this memorial more positive than some of the other, often angry gatherings that have been held in the past two months.

“I want to focus today on really the memory of Aaron, his accomplishments, sharing our condolences, in that we don’t take it into some of the areas that some of the other events have focused on,” Ito said.

At first, Ito got his wish. Friends and colleagues remembered Aaron Swartz as a computer programmer who cared more about making an impact than earning fame or money. And they remembered how he played with the rules, not by the rules, in his bid to use technology to make the world more like he wanted it to be.

It wasn’t long though before speakers began to single out the very university where they were gathered, blaming MIT for helping to push Swartz to kill himself.

“There’s no doubt that MIT made mistakes,” said Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman. “There’s no doubt that the persecution that led to Aaron’s death has made the world a much, much worse place in violation of MIT’s mission.”

Stinebrickner-Kauffman had been Swartz’s partner. She condemned MIT for not telling U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz to drop the charges that included wiretapping and computer fraud.

After Swartz’s suicide, MIT President Rafael Reif asked for an internal inquiry. He appointed computer science professor Hal Abelson to lead it. Abelson was at the memorial, listening as Stinebrickner-Kauffman voiced her mistrust of his pending report.

“I fear that the investigation will instead be in the spirit of a bureaucracy, a PR exercise, a whitewash,” Stinebrickner-Kauffman said.

As she spoke, some of the nearly 200 people in the audience, which included many MIT students and employees, muttered quietly and shifted uncomfortably in their seats.

“Nothing can bring Aaron back,” she continued. “But MIT has a chance to make a major course correction here. The question is, will it?”

The audience sustained its applause longer for her comments than anyone else’s. Before introducing the next speaker, Ito echoed some of what she said.

“As a pretty new member of this institution, and one that is trying desperately to build loyalty to this institution, I also feel that this report will be a huge influence on how I feel about this institution,” Ito said.

But Ito said he does trust Abelson, the head of internal examination.

Still, the speaker criticism wasn’t over. Bob Swartz, Aaron’s father and a consultant with an office on campus, claimed that MIT has lost its way.

“What has happened to the MIT I love? How can this wonderful place act so cruelly? How could they crush my son?” Bob Swartz said.

Ethan Zuckerman brought the memorial to a close.

“Today, particularly listening to Bob and listening to Taren, I think there’s another challenge for all of us associated with this institution,” Zuckerman said.

Zuckerman runs the MIT Center for Civic Media, and he called on students, faculty and administrators alike to think harder about what they do every day at MIT, and why they do it.

“We are privileged to be part of an institution that attracts a lot of people like Aaron. That attracts people who want to make, who want to create, who want to think, who want to act, who want to push limits, who want to make the world better,” Zuckerman said. “And for those of us who are part of this institution, it’s our responsibility to figure out how we can make this a place where that can happen.”

When it was over, people walked out of the Media Lab, into the rain. But lingering for a while were two people at the center of all of this: Bob Swartz, Aaron’s father, and Hal Abelson, the man in charge of examining what MIT did right or wrong. They stood together and talked.

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  • disqus_Ndjl7sg3k8

    Why all this fuss for this man- he did something illegal – it wasn’t MIT’s fault- it was his.

    • http://www.facebook.com/bkort Barry Kort

      This isn’t just a story about Aaron Swartz. It’s a story about a culture war that pervades our 21st Century technological society.

      • disqus_Ndjl7sg3k8

        you don’t break the laws if you don’t agree with them – you try to change them. Only a spoiled privileged “chosen” few think they are above the law. MIT did not kill him – he killed himself because he was a sick man

        • http://www.facebook.com/bkort Barry Kort

          There is no evidence that Aaron Swartz broke any laws. There is evidence that he was scrupulous about not breaking any laws, even as he was seeking to fix a broken system.

    • David Chandler

      We don’t know that he did anything illegal. In this country, you are innocent until proven guilty, and now he’ll never have a chance to go to trial, so he will never be proven guilty — and he probably was not, in fact, guilty of anything.

      • http://www.facebook.com/bkort Barry Kort

        In her remarks, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman said that Aaron’s legal team was still seeking a way to release the government’s evidence against Aaron so that the public and the professional legal community can evaluate the government’s case on its merits.

      • gk08

        I am pretty sure he was captured on video breaking and entering on MIT property and making attempts to hide his work. Obviously the case has ended so there will be no formal judgment on the issue but I hardly think that there is any doubt that what he was doing was illegal. You can disagree with the law/rules, but that moral discussion is different from the legal facts.
        The lesson for all “wannabe” world changers is that you shouldn’t play with fire if you can’t take the heat. Gandhi and MLK Jr. show us that you can fight unfair laws with civil disobedience but you have to be willing to go to jail and face the consequences of your actions.

  • matt p.

    Wow! npr, you just won’t let this story go. Why is that? It is sad this white jewish privileged adult killed himself. Very sad. But there are thousands of people a day who do, including poor people, black people, kids in school who get bullied, veterans, people diagnosed as depressed. Stop blaming MIT. That’s clearly your angle hear. As suppose to what was actually driving Mr. Swartz to take his life.

    • http://www.facebook.com/bkort Barry Kort

      Who shall we blame for the failure to solve systemic problems that pervade our culture?

      • matt p.

        I would love to have that conversation but nowhere in this article is that discussed.

        • http://www.facebook.com/bkort Barry Kort

          It’s just below the surface, in Ethan Zuckerman’s closing remarks, where he called upon MIT students, faculty and administrators alike to think harder about the issues that Aaron raised to our attention.

    • dnl2002

      Matt p.,The angle here is *reporting* that a number of people feel that MIT is to blame, and have publicly said so. NPR makes no claims or inferences about guilt/innocence on the part of either MIT or Mr. Swartz. Yes, there are unfortunately far too many people who take their own lives. Journalism is a way that other individuals can call attention to this fact and perhaps try to reduce the number of people that commit suicide in the future, whatever the reasons that may be motivating the act.

      Just because NPR reported people’s opinions on a subject it does not mean that they are the same opinions that the staff of NPR hold.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bkort Barry Kort

    I am grateful to Curt Nickisch and WBUR for putting together this excellent account of yesterday’s memorial gathering at the MIT Media Lab (where I have an affiliation).

    The question I hope to find an answer to in Hal Abelson’s forthcoming review is this one:

    Did high-level MIT officials take leave of the faculties of their senses?

  • http://twitter.com/anarcho anarcho

    I am just going to repeat what I said elsewhere, and let the chips fall where they may.

    There are many unanswered questions here, some facts, and if
    unanswered will lead to speculation – or what some call an educated
    guess. Lets all face a simple fact, there are no institutions which
    are not systemically tainted in the USA – that is, run by profit margin
    through administration rather than for some noble cause like truth,
    discovery, and mutual innovation.

    This is not to say that these causes cannot be attained, but that
    they are all routed through the labyrinth of profitability whose main
    aim always ends with the product or discovery enriching the moneyed few
    first and foremost. Teachers are no longer assessed by their
    contribution to humanity but are made commodities that attract more
    capital (you can see this by the rarity of tenured positions today).

    So if it is public money the people pay many times over for access,
    if it is private money that it is earmarked for privatized profit for
    whoever funded whatever.

    When we talk about Aaron Swartz we have to ask why was the Secret
    Service there from day one, and if MIT called on them, why? Chances
    are that they were following Aaron and inserted themselves into the
    process, and the institution which has become a craven coward submitted
    all the material to them for the push to prosecution (fearing it would
    lose favor at the public trough). There was and is a sweep taking place
    in Washington on this issue of not only knowledge academic, but
    knowledge and information which the people demand – many are sitting in
    prison right now awaiting trial, and this all happened around the same
    time that Aaron was harassed by these federal entities.

    Did you think they forgot SOPA and PIPA and Aaron’s leadership
    role in closing this legislation down? I don’t think so, so they we
    watching him carefully and dreamt about his head on the wall like a
    trophy, on their wall of shame. There was a vendetta on, and Aaron was
    the easy target.

    That is all I have to say, and if you think there will be anything
    substantive coming out of MIT you are in for a long long wait. The duty
    that we have is to shake these foundations, and to progress for the
    people, globally. Institutions academic and other will either listen
    to and follow the people or they will crumble, and new ones with
    correct loyalties to the people will be built in their place. We must
    take the resounding blow of losing Aaron right now, but will eventually
    gain much in his memory and much more for the people – knowledge is
    power, power to the people.

    One addition, because I see someone who has repeatedly made the same post (Matt P.) – overreach and a “crime” for everything is not merely something that happens in this arena, it is not a rare occurrence (which I have repeatedly said on my blog). It is a systemic issue of overcriminalization, and it has mostly been applied to the poor and the weak without the attended spotlight.

    Actually, mental illness might mean something in some circles, but not the criminal/judicial – because we incarcerate the mentally ill (and mental illness was NOT Aaron Swartz, but this system is the issue)! Suicides are rife in prisons and increasing, check the statistics.

    Having said this there is a signal being sent here, that is if you think you were privileged – your children are also the target. So the academic community, which for all intents and purposes has been the handmaiden of this system (cookie cutting “good citizens,” and dispensing “safe” censored by the few material) can also be the target. So, the dragnet broadens, you thought you were safe/insulated but you are not (so much for your middleman domain) – you are sacrificed for the moneyed few also, do you feel cozy and safe, here is your reward. Get angry and do something and help free those who have been victimized by this system (want some direction? Start with Google and look up Barrett Brown, Jeremy Hammond to start and there are many others targeted in this vendetta put on by your government in the name of protecting the moneyed few and preserving this defunct system).

    • http://www.facebook.com/bkort Barry Kort

      When we talk about Aaron Swartz we have to ask why was the Secret Service there from day one, and if MIT called on them, why?

      Here is my understanding of the sequence of events.

      The MIT Network Admins observed unusual activity on the MIT network and eventually discovered an unattended laptop plugged into an Ethernet jack in a wiring closet in the basement of Building 16. The MIT Network Admins then called in the MIT Campus Police. The MIT Campus Police in turn called in the Cambridge Police. The Cambridge Police then called in the New England Cybercrime Task Force, which included a representative of the Secret Service.

      That’s how the Secret Service became involved.

      • http://twitter.com/anarcho anarcho

        Here is how this occurred by internal documents -

        “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.4 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.”

        The almost instantaneous involvement of the Secret Service just as it evolved from a local breaking and entry case into the excessive charges ultimately charged makes it clear that this was a nationally directed effort to take down Swartz.

        • http://www.facebook.com/bkort Barry Kort

          This is where I hope Hal Abelson’s report will be more transparent.

          It is my understanding that the idea to leave the problematic laptop in place and attach a packet sniffer to it came from the Secret Service (presumably from Secret Service Agent Michael Picket).

          Had something like this occurred at an earlier phase in the evolution of network technology, the MIT Network Admins would most likely have unplugged an erratic machine and notified the owner of a problem. In this case, when it was a laptop in an unusual location, one might have expected that the MIT Network Admins would have removed the problematic laptop back to their offices, leaving in its place a note advising the owner to come to the Network Admin Offices to retrieve their erratic machine and to cooperate with them to resolve the problem before returning it to service in accordance with MIT’s guidelines for ensuring that equipment on the network is operated in a “responsible, professional, and ethical manner.”

          • http://saultannenbaum.org/ Saul Tannenbaum

            There are a couple of points that I think need to be made.

            As someone who has reported carefully on the sequence of events (http://cctvcambridge.org/SwartzCambridgePolice) it’s worth the caveat that, though I fully believe that the Cambridge Police called in the Secret Service via the NE Cybercrimes Task Force, that’s sourced to a single Huffington Post report citing an anonymous MIT source. I’ve asked the Cambridge Police who declined to comment, referring me to the US Attorney’s Office who (ironically) referred me to PACER.

            In my former life, I participated in incidents like this at another university. I think the MIT Network Admins acted correctly and prudently in summoning law enforcement as a matter of personal safety. You don’t know whose computer that was, why it was left there, and the state of mind of that person should they come to tend to it or retrieve it. It’s not a Network admin’s job to handle that sort of confrontation, if it should happen, and I would consider their safety paramount. Yes, this isn’t the way the old MIT would have handled it, but these are different times with a different set of risks that have to be acknowledged.

            The absolutely fair question to be asked is: Once law enforcement arrived, why did MIT defer to the Secret Service? There are basic management questions that should be asked, as well, for example, Who was managing the incident for MIT? Was there a clear incident command structure? And, if not, why not? I hope that Hal Abelson’s report speaks directly to all of this.

            Lastly, Swartz’s estate’s attorneys have filed to lift the protective order around the discovery documents turned over to Swartz’s defense (http://cctvcambridge.org/SwartzMemorial). MIT has opposed this in the past. All of this would have been disclosed on the public record should the case have come to trial, and a continued objection to public disclosure certainly makes MIT look like it has something to hide.

          • http://www.facebook.com/bkort Barry Kort

            I’ll go out on a limb and make a prediction on my own personal recognizance.

            I predict that it will be revealed that the Secret Service asserted its authority to take charge of the investigation, and that this assertion shifted MIT’s locus of cooperation to the Chancelor’s Office and the MIT General Counsel’s Office, locking out any significant guidance or participation from either the MIT Network Admins or the MIT Academic Faculty.

  • cfd

    A clarification: The article says the audience “held its applause longer” for Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman’s remarks than anyone else’s. What the author meant (and what happened) is that the audience applauded longer, more loudly, more resoundingly and more firmly for her than for anyone else. That phrasing, and the comments about seat-squirming before it, implies that the people in the room didn’t like what she had to say. On the contrary, there was near consensus among the audience, all the speakers, and Joi Ito’s remarks after Taren spoke that MIT screwed up, and things need to change.

    • http://www.facebook.com/bkort Barry Kort

      I was sitting toward the front, so I didn’t see any seat-squirming. But in my own notes I wrote down “sustained applause” which I’m pretty sure lasted a full minute. Perhaps Curt has the audio recording and can confirm or correct me on that.

    • dnl2002

      Thank you for clarifying, cfd…While reading the article, I was under the impression that there was a long, uncomfortable pause before the audience began to applaud after Stinebrickner-Kauffman spoke. By your descriptions, Barry Kort’s label of “sustained applause” would much better illustrate the events as they happened. I appreciate you taking the time to explain!

      • http://twitter.com/CurtNickisch Curt Nickisch

        Folks, I agree sustained is a better word, and have changed it above. But you can hear the applause in the radio story and the words “held its applause” were spoken as the audience claps, so I think the listening audience certainly got the impression there was broad resonance with what Stinebrickner-Kauffman had to say, at least with her final point. The also heard the unedited pause, which was very short and very standard. So I don’t think anyone got the impression of an uncomfortable silence.

        I was sitting in the last row and there were some folks who appeared uncomfortable with some of what she had to say.

        • dnl2002

          I very much appreciate your clarification to the print article, Mr. Nickisch. That said, In response to your comments about the radio story leaving no doubt as to intent, I would like to please point out that many of the target audience for this story (including myself) have myriad reasons for not listening to the audio file; hearing impairment, lack of time or interest, or deficient technology or internet bandwidth.

          The perfectly lovely printed article now does a fine job in reporting the events without being necessary to rely on the audio file. Thank you for your time!

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