The Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced on Tuesday that it would voluntarily release documents related to the prosecution of the open-access activist Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide in January. In a letter to the MIT community, L. Rafael Reif, the university’s president, explained that the decision was in response to a motion, filed by Mr. Swartz’s estate in federal court in Boston, that demands the release of any public information concerning the case.
“At MIT we believe in openness, and we are not afraid to examine our own actions,” Mr. Reif wrote.
At the time of his death, Mr. Swartz, 26, was facing up to 35 years in prison after he allegedly used a laptop hidden in an MIT closet in 2011 to make unauthorized downloads of more than four million scholarly articles from the nonprofit journal archive JSTOR. He was accused of downloading the materials with the intent of later uploading them to the Internet and making them freely available, according to a federal indictment.
Days after Mr. Swartz’s death, Mr. Reif appointed Hal Abelson, an MIT professor, to lead an investigation into how the university had handled the case. In his letter Mr. Reif said the documents would be released at the same time as Mr. Abelson’s report. MIT has not said when that report will be issued, but on January 22 Mr. Abelson stated that he hoped it would be “ready in a few weeks.”
Mr. Reif also wrote that the documents would have certain names and information redacted to protect the privacy and safety of those named in the documents, as well as to safeguard network vulnerabilities, due to a “pattern of harassment and personal threats” since Mr. Swartz’s suicide.
MIT has been hacked a number of times since the activist’s death. One attack, by the hacker group Anonymous, turned MIT’s main Web site into a memorial page for Mr. Swartz and caused a Web outage that lasted several hours, according to Kimberly Allen, an MIT spokeswoman. On February 23 a caller to the Cambridge, Mass., Police Department reported seeing a gunman on MIT’s campus seeking to retaliate against those involved in Mr. Swartz’s case, including Mr. Reif. The call turned out to be a hoax.
“In this volatile atmosphere, I have the responsibility to protect the privacy and safety of those members of our community who have become involved in this matter in the course of doing their jobs for MIT, and to ensure a safe environment for all of us who call MIT home,” Mr. Reif stated.
Lawyers for the Swartz estate filed a motion on Friday seeking to drop a protective order surrounding the case and asking that the documents be released to the public and to Congress without blacking out the names of MIT and JSTOR employees. A Congressional panel led by Rep. Darrell E. Issa, a California Republican who is chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, is investigating how the office of the U.S. attorney Carmen M. Ortiz handled the prosecution.
“Swartz’s defense team reasons that, in light of Aaron’s death, there is no longer a case to prosecute and no risk that disclosure would impede a fair trial,” according to a statement released by the Swartz family on Tuesday. “Swartz’s lawyers argue that the protective order hinders the public’s access to information without substantial justification.”
The decision to redact certain information in the documents is a disappointment, said Mr. Swartz’s father, Robert Swartz.
“Their concerns about privacy and security don’t arise with respect to the Congressional committee which has asked for these documents,” Robert Swartz told The Chronicle. “And MIT has given no reason they shouldn’t be able to obtain these documents without redaction so they can understand in detail what happened.”
He added that certain information—birth dates, Social Security numbers, and grand-jury transcripts—should be redacted, but removing the names of the MIT employees involved in the case is wrong, particularly when the requested documents were slated to be used in his son’s trial.
“How can they make arguments about security and privacy,” Robert Swartz asked, “when they gave these documents to the government with the understanding it would be used as evidence in a public trial?”