Following a court order, the United States Secret Service released the first 104 of 14,500 pages of its file on computer hacker Aaron Swartz, giving the public insight into the overzealous investigation of the brilliant coder and activist.
Known for hacking into the JSTOR database and bulk downloading 4 million scholarly articles from the site, Swartz committed suicide this January, less than three months before his trial was set to begin. He was indicted on 13 federal charges including computer fraud, theft of information, and wire fraud. He faced more than 50 years in prison and more than $4 million in fines.
The problem with these charges Swartz is that the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), written in 1986, is now archaic, vague and allows for punishment disproportionate to the crime committed.
The zeal with which the Secret Service and FBI investigated Swartz shows that they wanted to make an example of the 26-year-old. They wanted him to serve as a warning for other internet activists.
U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) called Swartz’s download “an act of civil disobedience,” as he was known for protesting the commercialization of academic and public documents.
The USSS had been interested in Swartz since the publication of the “Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto,” which he co-authored in 2008.
The FBI had also been interested in Swartz since 2008 after he circumvented an online fee to download public court documents. Swartz’s actions were not illegal, but they still caught the FBI’s attention. Following Swartz’s foray with Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER), the FBI attempted to surveil his house and began monitoring his actions.
Congress needs to make serious revisions to the laws against computer hacking so that simple protesters are not treated like felons.