Anonymous avenges Aaron Swartz - MIT and DoJ websites allegedly hacked

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order

Anonymous, or someone with that name, is reported to have downed the website of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

MIT runs the network via which, back in 2011, controversial internet activist Aaron Swartz allegedly acquired a whole bucketload of download-protected academic articles in contravention of his entitlement, with the aim of republishing them without restriction.

Swartz apparently went to the lengths of hiding a laptop in a wiring closet in a secure area, along with a bunch of removable hard drives for the data, and cut loose a pair of Python scripts called keepgrabbing.py and keepgrabbing2.py.

The scripts allegedly leeched 4.8 million articles from the JSTOR academic archive, including 1.7 million articles that weren't free.

Swartz was caught.

He is said to have settled a civil matter with MIT, and that would probably have been the end of it had Swartz not also ended up charged by the authorities with a laundry list of criminal offences.

Sadly, Swartz killed himself last Friday.

It seems that his depression pre-dated the MIT event and his criminal charges, but there can be no doubt that the maximum sentence he faced - widely reported as including up to 35 years in prison - must have been a heavy burden to bear.

Quite whether Swartz would have been sentenced to, or served, 35 years, is a tragically moot point now. The Wall Street Journal suggests that the public prosecutors wouldn't consider a plea bargain without some prison time, but we have no idea what length the prosecutors might have thought fitting.

→ At the risk of conflating two dissimilar cases, Gary McKinnon, the infamous UK hacker who successfully fought a ten-year battle against extradition to the USA on hacking charges was reported throughout his decade-long legal campaign to be facing 60 years in prison, but in 2003 was offered a plea bargain for a sentence around 5% of that length.

Some reports, both on Twitter and beyond, claim that the US Department of Justice (DoJ) website was knocked over by Anonymous, too.

Both sites seem to be fine now.

Neither site seems worthy of a generic broadside, however.

The DoJ website, for example, isn't just about hounding alleged crooks and trumpeting the convictions of guilty ones. It also includes resources for the victims of crime, for getting copies of your own criminal record, and much more.

Likewise, the MIT network offers free online courseware from 2150 courses, itself providing just the sort of open availability of academic material that Aaron Swartz considered so important.

So one wonders just how much sympathy Anonymous deserves, or will get, for deliberately spoiling things for other people.

All to prove a point that others have made publicly, openly and much more visibly simply by professing their opinions about the tragic case of Aaron Swartz.

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12 Responses to Anonymous avenges Aaron Swartz - MIT and DoJ websites allegedly hacked

  1. marty · 464 days ago

    did he commit suicide? found hanging as i read. leaves a lot to be desired? im no anonymous member, but i believe in free speech. Rip Aaron. [URI redacted] makes you think?

  2. Yohan Perera · 463 days ago

    Right or wrong, free speech or not hacking is NOT ethical. Black hat hackers and computer criminals are a threat to the well being of any society. They should consider cooperating with governments worldwide and put their knowledge to good use instead of taking down other people's web sites and brag about it.

    • Proxima · 463 days ago

      Cooperating with governments? What planet do you live on? Take a look around you. What government puts anything to good use? We live in an aristocracy. The only power the people have left is the internet. What makes you think we are going hand that over on a silver platter? Have you heard of the atom bomb? Have you heard of the nuclear bomb? Did computer hackers use those to kill millions of people? No our governments did. Computer criminals are just as much of a threat to society as this so called war on terror. Meanwhile, governments grow bigger and stronger montering us all, telling us to live in fear. Do you know what is a threat to the well being of society? Try the war on drugs. That has harmed and killed more innocent people then any computer hacker could ever imagine. These prosecutors were sentencing this brilliant young man to a life in prison, you don't think they were going to brag about that? to all of there peers? Maybe even get a promotion? What is worse shutting down a website for a day? Or, being responsible for a young mans death? How dare you.

  3. Stf · 463 days ago

    Did you actually read what they put on MIT's website?

  4. To be fair, the index page defacement on Anonymous' website did not prevent access to the site, it was essentially just an extra landing page. And the message on the defacement didn't even criticize MIT really, it just called for change and stated they figured the audience at MIT would be most receptive and sympathetic. Anonymous often does things I can't get behind but this is one thing of which I approve. They didn't prevent access to MIT.edu at all and wrote some very poignant things about today's laws and the work that Aaron did. Hacktivism is here to stay, like it or not, and hacktivists are not always the bad guys.

  5. Rae Decors · 463 days ago

    The real threat to society are the governments. Developing StuxNet to infect nuclear centrifuges - and now Cyber Warfare committed by all governments. Is their hacking ethical? The copyright monster and its sidekicks the government and obstructive laws have only the aim to make money and let the rest of us know where we belong - holding up the layered cake of the rich.

    • Randy · 463 days ago

      All is fair in love and war. The Internet is part of the new battlefield and we have to acknowledge that fact or we'll be left far behind. Fortunately the most effective defense is the simplest: unplug that little CAT-5 cable in the back of your computer.

  6. John Miles · 463 days ago

    I see the pro SOPA brigade are alive and well, commenting in here.

  7. Nigel · 463 days ago

    Well, if Mr. Swartz was already suffering from depression before he was caught, it's really not possible to say with any certainty whether the prospect of jail time pushed him to suicide. It probably didn't help, but there's no way to run a controlled experiment. People who are suicidal have serious wetware/software problems, and if one thing doesn't trigger a meltdown, something else will.

    But let's say, for the sake of argument, that the prospect of major jail time IS the factor that drove Aaron Swartz to suicide. Doesn't that make anyone stop and think about the sheer idiocy of punitive imprisonment for non-violent crimes? What does it solve? Whom does it help? I mean, it's not like this guy was a serial axe murderer, or an incorrigible rapist, or a compulsive child molester, or a career politician, who needed to be put away where he wouldn't bring others to great harm.

    I dunno...this is an old argument, and we won't resolve it here. But in my view, in cases where no irreparable harm has been done, it seems more reasonable to have the criminal restore the losses he caused, rather than incarcerating him at public expense---an outcome in which no one wins.

  8. foo · 463 days ago

    JSTOR announced that they would not press charges. Instead of being overjoyed at the news, Swartz descended into such depression that, two days later, he committed suicide.

    Nothing to see here, folks. Move along...

  9. The MIT defacements didn't interfere with coursework or access to information; they actually had a link at the bottom of the page to the original landing pages.

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About the author

Paul Ducklin is a passionate security proselytiser. (That's like an evangelist, but more so!) He lives and breathes computer security, and would be happy for you to do so, too. Paul won the inaugural AusCERT Director's Award for Individual Excellence in Computer Security in 2009. Follow him on Twitter: @duckblog