The Massachusetts Institute of Technology discovered in January 2011 that an intruder had snuck into a computer network closet and attached a small portable computer to the university’s system. M.I.T. called in law enforcement.
In the tragic steps that followed, a bright young man committed suicide, and the university has been accused of overreaching by involving the cops and by failing to tell them to get a warrant.
There can be no doubt that Aaron Swartz’s death is a tragedy, but the overreaching in this case comes from those who think they have a right to steal.
The 26-year-old was described by The New York Times as “one of the shining lights of the technology world and a leading advocate for open access to information, with a fellowship down the road at Harvard.” He took his own life as he faced trial on charges that he used M.I.T.’s computers to illegally download scholarly papers from JSTOR, an academic search engine providing access to scholarly journals.
Libraries and individuals pay significant fees for JSTOR access, but some critics say the information should be free because its creation was subsidized by the public through its universities. The issues involved are complex, and there’s good reason to seek a better approach that provides more, less-expensive access to academic research.
There’s no good reason, however, for theft. And there’s no good reason to argue that M.I.T. shouldn’t aggressively protect its computer system from secretive attachments by a trespasser in its computer closet.
M.I.T. President L. Rafael Reif has expressed dismay at the possibility that the university’s action led to tragedy, and he launched an investigation of the university’s role. And at least some in the M.I.T. community are also concerned. The New York Times quotes alumni Brewster Kahle as saying, “When I was at M.I.T., if someone went to hack the system, say by downloading databases to play with them, (he) might be called a hero, get a degree, and start a company. But they called the cops on him. Cops.”
The Internet has moved beyond those free-wheeling early days. It’s a critical part of our societal and commercial infrastructure. Those who wish to challenge parts of that structure need to work constructively within it.