A 24-year-old online activist was charged Tuesday with sneaking into a computer closet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and making unauthorized downloads of more than four million journal articles.
The programmer, Aaron Swartz, was a fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Ethics at the time of the alleged hack, and he is the founder of a lobbying group called Demand Progress, which focuses on technology-policy issues. He pleaded not guilty to all charges and was released on $100,000 bail.
The programmer reportedly broke into a computer-wiring closet at the campus to access the university network and downloaded thousands of files from JSTOR—an online database of scholarly articles and journals. The university pays a subscription fee for use of the database.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts charged Mr. Swartz with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer.
In a statement, JSTOR confirmed that it had secured the digital content Mr. Swartz allegedly stole and that none of the downloaded information included identifying information about database users.
The publisher of JSTOR attempted to distance itself from the criminal investigation, and noted in a statement that it was subpoenaed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and was cooperating. “We were interested in making sure it was secure and wasn’t disseminated,” said Heidi McGregor, vice president of marketing and communications at JSTOR, of the recovered information.
According to the indictment, Mr. Swartz’s repeated attempts at downloading large numbers of files from September to January eventually caused JSTOR computers to crash and tipped off university officials of the breach.
MIT officials declined to comment on the case.
Demand Progress set up a petition in support of its founder on its Web site and wrote: “As best as we can tell, he is being charged with allegedly downloading too many journal articles from the Web.”
The group’s executive director, David Segal, was quoted in the same blog post as saying “it’s like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library.” Mr. Segal called the charges bizarre and maintained Mr. Swartz’s commitment to ethics and open government.
The indictment outlined various attempts by Mr. Swartz to mask his identity while downloading the information, including setting up fake university accounts and obtaining new IP addresses after JSTOR and the university blocked access to his laptop computer.
Mr. Swartz faces up to 35 years in prison and up to $1 million in fees if convicted. His trial is set for September.