Swartz suicide won't change computer crime policy, says prosecutor
Questions grow over second hacker suicide
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. ®
When pressed further on the issue, Ortiz said
"I mean come ON - we were able to hound somebody until they KILLED themselves. Not only is that a real example of judicial economy - we don't have to bother with a trial now! - but we can now use that when we lean on anybody else! Think of how many 'confessions' we'll get! Think of how many people we can turn on their friends! 'Are you now, or have you ever been, a computer hacker? Do you know any computer hackers? and if so, why did you not notify authorities?' - it positively gives me goosesteps (or is that goosepimples?)!
And think of all the people who will 'self-censor' - we can cut down on this 'crime' (we really need a new name for it: it takes thinking, maybe thought crime?) just by making everybody fear what happens if we look at them.
And it's not like this guy was clean - after all, if he had nothing to hide, if he had done nothing wrong, then he had nothing to fear, amirite?"
Re: 4 Simple Points.
1) One who believes that academic articles funded by the taxpayer, and that are in the public domain, are most effectively used by society as a whole if they are freely available.
2) Yes it is - he had to plead guilty without trial to the charges to get that much reduced sentence. As far as we can tell, he both wasn't guilty (see 3 below), nor thought he was guilty. You also have to account for the cost of US federal court cases - unlike in the UK, the loser doesn't have to pay costs, and they cost millions.
3) It's not clear he committed any crime at all - see this account by an expert witness for the trial: http://unhandled.com/2013/01/12/the-truth-about-aaron-swartzs-crime/
4) How do you know what intervention they took, or what worked or didn't? Depression is a disease, and by no means a simple one for those suffering or their friends/family. We don't know exactly why Aaron died, however it seems likely to be a combination of clinical depression, along with the circumstances of his prosecution.
You're going to prison ... the only question is, for how long?
It's fairly common knowledge that approx. 95% of the felony convictions in the U.S. are obtained through "plea bargains," wherein the prosecution holds a huge club over the head of the accused. Plea bargaining has several times been praised as an "efficient response" to a jammed-up criminal court system. (It's even descended to the level of defending oneself in traffic court; I was once threatened with a plea bargain while fighting a wrongful charge of reckless driving. The case was dismissed when the complaining party was sent back to state prison for parole violation, and they wouldn't release him for a traffic court appearance.)
It is easy to visualize Ms. Ortiz saying, "Make it easy on yourself ... plead guilty, and take the 6 months sentence in a medium-security lockup; or go to trial. Be advised, however ... that if you insist on taking this to trial, we will press the Court for maximum sentence, which could be 50 years and $1,000,000 in fines."
Somehow everyone glosses over the fact that accepting the plea bargain also has the consequence of 1.) becoming a felon and losing most civil rights of citizenship for life, and 2.) guaranteeing that you will never be able to hope for a retrial or submit an appeal (after all, you willingly pleaded 'guilty,' right?
Isn't that extreme pressure of a sort that could push a depressive personality over the edge? Have you ever laid awake at night, all night long, night after night, with the prospect of a felony conviction and most of your life in prison, which in America means being repeatedly sodomized and brutalized, foremost in your mind? That is a type of mental torture that will unhinge most people ... especially if they believe themselves to be innocent.
Most Americans now live in silent fear of the U.S. justice system. We all know that no middle-class American (the few that are left in this shrinking class) can possibly afford to defend themselves in a court trial of any consequence. Better to run one's car into a bridge abutment at 90 mph and let the surviving spouse and kidlets collect the life insurance, than go bankrupt and homeless trying to defend against an over-zealous prosecutor.