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MIT Is Still Working on Its Response to Aaron Swartz Case

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is still trying to figure out how to answer criticism of its response to the controversial federal prosecution of Aaron Swartz, the hacker and activist who was arrested on the MIT campus in 2011.

On Thursday university officials charged with reviewing MIT’s existing policies and practices flagged several ways the university could do more to protect digital privacy and encourage open-access publishing, according to an update from MIT’s news office.

But no action has been taken. Instead of advocating specific policy changes, the working groups recommended that other committees decide what should happen next.

Last summer a team of investigators led by Harold Abelson, a computer-science and engineering professor, concluded that “the world did not see leadership” from MIT, which remained neutral as federal agents prosecuted Mr. Swartz, then a fellow at Harvard University, under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Mr. Swartz killed himself early last year. Some people, including his father, Robert Swartz, still hold MIT partly responsible.

Since Mr. Abelson’s report was released, MIT has been trying to figure out how to regain credibility as a leader on the issues raised by Mr. Swartz’s advocacy and by the government’s prosecution of him.

One area of possible reform is how the university handles digital records that are automatically generated as a student moves through the network or the campus, such as network logs and access-card swipes. Mr. Abelson’s report cited “some gaps” in the university’s electronic-records policies that allowed federal agents to collect more digital breadcrumbs from Mr. Swartz than they might have otherwise.

In an interview with The Chronicle in December, Israel Ruiz, executive vice president and treasurer of MIT and head of the working group in charge of reviewing the electronic-records policies, said the university might be interested in “maintaining a narrow access policy” that involves promptly deleting network and card-swipe logs so as to protect students’ privacy.

But Mr. Ruiz’s recommendations on Thursday were not so specific. Rather, his group suggested that MIT “form a standing presidential committee on electronic records and online data privacy” that would develop a “set of principles to govern access and retention periods, refine and clarify policies and procedures where needed, and address any gaps that may exist,” the news office said.

Another working group, charged with reviewing MIT’s commitment to open-access publishing, brainstormed about ways the university could bolster its reputation as an open-access leader. The university could, for example, expand its existing open-access policy to include works published by graduate students, postdocs, and research scientists, the group said.

The open-access group, too, suggested that MIT should create “a new faculty body” to decide, at some later date, what specific actions the university should take.

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