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Swartz suicide won't change computer crime policy, says prosecutor

Questions grow over second hacker suicide

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

The aggressive prosecution of computer crimes won't be changed in light of the suicide of internet activist Aaron Swartz, a spokeswoman for Boston US Attorney Carmen Ortiz has said.

"Absolutely not," Ortiz told the Boston Herald. "We thought the case was reasonably handled and we would not have done things differently. We're going to continue doing the work of the office and of following our mission."

Swartz, who co-created RSS 1.0, Creative Commons, Reddit, and the Demand Progress internet action group, was facing 50 years in a federal prison and over a million dollars in fines for downloading 4.8 million articles from the JSTOR archive of academic papers.

Both JSTOR and MIT, whose network was allegedly used in the download, declined to press charges after the material was returned, but Ortiz and fellow prosecutor Stephen Heymann initially charged Swartz with five counts of computer and wire fraud, then increased the list to 15 in all before offering a plea bargain deal of six months imprisonment.

Swartz was found hanging in his Brooklyn apartment on January 12 by his girlfriend. His family has said that the pressure brought on him personally and the financial cost of defending himself were primary factors in his suicide.

"I am saddened that Ms. Ortiz isn't taking this moment to reflect on the role of proportionality and judgment in the pursuit of justice," said Swartz's girlfriend, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman. "Ms. Ortiz's office pursued a legal strategy of intimidation where they threatened Aaron with decades of time in prison for an alleged crime with no victims. That's not justice. That's bullying."

Swartz is the second suicide linked to Boston computer crime investigations. Jonathan James, who gained notoriety in January 2000 as a teenager who cracked Department of Defense and NASA systems, shot himself in the head in 2008 after being named as a suspect in Ortiz's biggest computer crime case, the TJX hacking scam.

Over 94 million accounts at retailer TJX were compromised in an attack that was at that time the most extensive yet seen, and James was named as a conspirator. While he denied involvement in the crime, James said he had no confidence in the legal system and shot himself before the case came to court. ®

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