4 Shocking Things From the Secret Service File On Aaron Swartz


Aaron Swartz, an early employee of Reddit, information freedom advocate, and Internet Hall of Fame inductee, was found dead earlier this year, after a period of over-the-top bullying from the federal government over some downloaded JSTOR documents. Now, after a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request from Wired contributor Kevin Poulsen, many previously secret details about that investigation have become public knowledge. More detail on the charges and the controversy surrounding Swartz can be seen on one of my colleague's articles here.

Although only 104 pages out of the Secret Service's 14,500 pages of documents on Swartz have so far been released, and much of that content is redacted, some very interesting facts can still be extracted from the files. We can expect more releases periodically every 45 days or so.

Here are some of the most ridiculous, most revealing, or generally most interesting so far:

1. The Guerilla Open Access Manifesto

First and foremost, the government seemed to be interested in Swartz due to his involvement in the "Guerilla Open Access Manifesto," which they used to establish some sort of malicious intent on Swartz's part. I mean, it has "guerilla" and "manifesto" right there in the title! Who has ever written something called a "manifesto" and not been some sort of radical revolutionary or crazy person?

Aaron Swartz, for starters. The full text of the "manifesto" is available here, and is actually quite anticlimactic. It basically just says academic articles should be posted on the internet for free, and if they aren't they should be downloaded from the paid services then reposted on free sites. While suggesting mild internet piracy (civil disobedience, in this case), it is hardly a dangerously revolutionary piece of writing.

It isn't like they're suggesting something truly horrible, like pirating movies, music, or games (seriously, thanks a lot for DRM, pirates). It actually sounds pretty noble.

2. The Court Appearances

In addition to having his home, storage units, and office raided, Swartz has 12 appearances in Middlesex Superior, Boston Federal, and Cambridge District Courts on his record over the course of 2011, often multiple on the same day.

This is, again, for downloading JSTOR files off of MIT computers, after JSTOR decided not to press charges. The level of extreme inconvenience caused to this man, eventually resulting in suicide, is mind-boggling.

3. The Confiscated Items

Among the documents released are accounts of the several raids the federal government made on Swartz's property. In these accounts are pages upon pages of lists of all of the property the government confiscated from him. Pages worth of hard drives, phones, computers, iPods, and compact discs were seized. The poor guy must have had a dozen iPods taken from him.

Also in the account is an interesting look into Swartz's feelings about the investigation. He taunted the federal agents as they rifled through all of his belongings, asking what took them so long, and why they didn't do this earlier.

One thing they seized is so petty, it defies any reasonable explanation I can think of. The federal government of the United States of America, in the course of an official investigation, using a federal search warrant, seized Aaron Swartz's Rock Band controller. Yes, the irrelevant random video-game accessory.

4. An Interview With a Good Friend

While heavily censored, the interview of one of Aaron Swartz's good friends [redacted] by Special Agent [redacted] and Detective [redacted] on May 12, 2011, at the [redacted] had [redacted] insights into the philosophy and [redacted] of Aaron [redacted]. [redacted] [redacted] of [redacted]! [redacted]?

In all seriousness, though, there is an interesting interview on page 98 of the released files. That interview confirms the government's interest in the Guerilla Open Access movement, and Swartz's feelings about it. The interview confirms Swartz as the author of the manifesto, and reveals that Swartz considered open access a human rights issue. Other than that, and the fact that Swartz had at some point early in the month of May 2011, eaten a breakfast, very little is left uncensored.