Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Is there a hidden side to the Swartz story?

Darrell Issa will investigate the Department of Justice's prosecution/persecution of Aaron Swartz. Don't expect much from Issa. My prediction: He will pursue this matter only insofar as he can use it to score partisan points; he will not uncover the truly hidden truths.

Are there hidden truths in the case? I believe so. Marcy Wheeler's excellent coverage of the Aaron Swartz affair focuses on some under-discussed factoids -- evidence which suggests that the government was after him for reasons other than those allegedly stolen JSTOR articles.

For example: Why did the Secret Service become involved in a fairly mundane case of putative copyright violation?
In fact, in one of the most recent developments in discovery in Aaron’s case, the government belatedly turned over an email showing Secret Service agent Michael Pickett offering to take possession of the hardware seized from Aaron “anytime after it has been processed for prints or whenever you [Assistant US Attorney Stephen Heymann] feel it is appropriate.” Another newly disclosed document shows the Pickett accompanied the local cops as they moved the hardware they had seized from Aaron around.

According to the Secret Service, they get involved in investigations with:

- Significant economic or community impact
- Participation of organized criminal groups involving multiple districts or transnational organizations
- Use of schemes involving new technology

Downloading scholarly articles is none of those things.
Swartz didn't even attempt to profit from this "crime," if crime it was. (The first link above goes to an article which argues that Swartz' activities did not constitute hacking.)

You can see more evidence of the Secret Service's involvement here.

Marcy also looks at Amazon, which turned over all records on Aaron Swartz. Many people don't understand that Amazon's EC2 servers host many web operations you might not think are associated with Amazon -- including Reddit, the truly free discussion forum which Swartz helped to found. Wikileaks was also hosted on those same servers at one point.

A very troubling choice, that. Amazon's policy is to turn over records to the government upon request, without being legally compelled to do so -- and without informing the user. (Remember those quaint days when people told government snoops to get a warrant?)

In March of 2011, Swartz talked about this matter with privacy researcher Chris Soghoian.
The exchange happened, we now know, in between the time the Cambridge police first arrested him for breaking and entering and the time the government indicted him for a slew of computer crimes. It seems likely that those “personal reasons” include negotiations with the Secret Service about the JSTOR downloads (we know Swartz and his lawyer met with the Secret Service that summer and turned over some hard drives).

As Swartz himself pointed out, this exchange also happened in the wake of news that the government had issued orders to Twitter–basically within a day of the time the Secret Service triggered Swartz’ initial arrest–for the communications of people associated with WikiLeaks.

The exchange is notable because of a request Swartz’ lawyer made the following year, at the beginning of the pre-trial discovery process. In addition to asking how the government had obtained a bunch of communication involving Swartz and others, his lawyer asked to see everything returned from grand jury subpoenas and orders served on MIT and JSTOR–which makes sense in this case–but also Twitter, Google, and Amazon.
Y'know, I'm starting to think that someone in the government thought that that Swartz and Assange had deep connections. The timing would suggest that Swartz was caught up in an anti-Wikileaks operation.

This possibility would explain why Swartz was threatened with a massive jail sentence over a relatively trivial matter. Perhaps someone in the government felt that Swartz possessed certain beans which he might be persuaded to spill, given the correct application of pressure.

Assange has, in fact, given an interview in which he discusses Swartz. I've not yet heard it.

We should also note that Swartz was, arguably, the most important figure in the movement against the Stop Online Piracy Act.

Jonathan Turley notes that the administration's prosecution of Swartz amounted to a mania:
Nevertheless, United States Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz and the Obama Administration relentlessly pursued Swartz and sought an absurd 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines before he took his own life. His family blames the Justice Department and Ortiz for his suicide. Swartz opposed the Administration’s fight against public access and particularly President Obama’s “Kill List.” The Swartz prosecution was widely criticized for months but the Obama Administration and Justice Department remained committed to putting him in jail.
This piece in Naked Capitalism by Matt Stoller -- who knew Swartz -- emphasizes that Swartz was, first and foremost, a political animal.
What killed him was corruption. Corruption isn’t just people profiting from betraying the public interest. It’s also people being punished for upholding the public interest. In our institutions of power, when you do the right thing and challenge abusive power, you end up destroying a job prospect, an economic opportunity, a political or social connection, or an opportunity for media. Or if you are truly dangerous and brilliantly subversive, as Aaron was, you are bankrupted and destroyed. There’s a reason whistleblowers get fired. There’s a reason Bradley Manning is in jail. There’s a reason the only CIA official who has gone to jail for torture is the person – John Kiriako - who told the world it was going on. There’s a reason those who destroyed the financial system “dine at the White House”, as Lawrence Lessig put it. There’s a reason former Senator Russ Feingold is a college professor whereas former Senator Chris Dodd is now a multi-millionaire. There’s a reason DOJ officials do not go after bankers who illegally foreclose, and then get jobs as partners in white collar criminal defense. There’s a reason no one has been held accountable for decisions leading to the financial crisis, or the war in Iraq. This reason is the modern ethic in American society that defines success as climbing up the ladder, consequences be damned. Corrupt self-interest, when it goes systemwide, demands that it protect rentiers from people like Aaron, that it intimidate, co-opt, humiliate, fire, destroy, and/or bankrupt those who stand for justice.
A follow-up piece by Lambert takes this inquiry into very troubling places:
Swartz was not the only tech genius to commit suicide**. Two examples; see if you can find a common factor with Swartz.

First, Ilya Zhitomirskiy (22). His project was Diaspora:
Instead of creating a central database like Facebook’s, where information about hundreds of millions of members is stored and mined for advertising and marketing purposes, their idea was to develop freely shared software that would allow every member of the network to ‘own’ his or her personal information.
Second, Len Sassaman (36). His project was Mixmaster:
Len Sassaman, [was] a highly-regarded 31 year-old cryptographer who helped create secure communication systems. ... The former engineer for Anonymizer, which obscures a user’s IP address, was a well-known “cypherpunk” who maintained the open source Mixmaster remailer software. The Mixmaster protocol was designed to protect against traffic analysis and offer users a way to send email anonymously. Sassaman’s work focussed on ‘attacking and defending anonymous communication systems, exploring the applicability of information-theoretic secure systems for privacy solutions, and designing protocols which satisfy the specific needs of the use case for which they are applied’, according to his profile at the computer security and industrial cryptography research department of Belgium’s Leuven University.
Before you ask, Sassaman, like Swartz, suffered from depression, and Zhitomirskiy was bipolar. However, if you look again at their work, you will also see that both men had an additional risk factor in common with Swartz: They too were directly assaulting the interests of rentiers with a vision of open access, Zhitomirskiy with the radical notion that users should own their own data (the nerve!), and Sassaman with the equally radical notion that people should be able to communicate without having their own byte streams monetized.
You could work up a nice little conspiracy theory about all of this, if you were of a mind to do so.

I don't want to go there, because I don't want to be classified alongside jackasses like Alex Jones -- and I certainly don't want to be perceived as kin to those monstrous Sandy Hook "truthers." So if you want to see a post like that, you'll have to write it yourself.

Postscript: Perhaps this piece should close with a few words about the question of whether Swartz really "stole" those JSTOR articles. If you're not familiar with the way things work in academia, you should know that you can usually access the JSTOR system -- even if you are not a student -- by walking into a good university library (like the one at, oh, say, MIT). One you're plugged into the system, you can download articles all day long -- legally.

I've done this. My idea of a fun afternoon may differ from yours.

Swartz figured out a way to download millions of articles. He didn't have to hack into anything. He just sped up the process. (Yes, I'm drastically simplifying the situation; people don't come to this blog for long dissertations on computer science.)


Mr. Mike said...

The government's top official is the president and to paraphrase what Harry Truman once said,"The buck stops with Obama"

Nothing should be more important to the president than the fact that one of the citizens he is charged with protecting was denied their Constitutional rights.

PS your new bot detector systems sucks, it really hard to read the numbers. The audio clue sucks x2

Anonymous said...

We need a new Church Committee, which ain't gonna happen cuz there are no congresscritters with Aaron's chutzpah.

The only way we're going to see any revision to NS excesses, is if 20 or more youngsters make a suicide pact over some such prosecutorial misbehavior, and the whole Nation can be horrified becuz, The Children!!!!!!!!.

One is not enough to capture the public attention.


Joseph Cannon said...

Mike, I'm really sorry about that.

What happened was this: Blogger used to have a comment spam detection system that worked really well. Then, one day, it stopped working. Either that, or the comment spammers found clever new ways to do their dirty work.

Bottom line, the spam was killing me. Every ten minutes there would be twenty "comments" that were actually ads for cialis or handbags or whatever.

I hate inflicting a "Captcha" type system on people. The one that Blogger uses really does suck.

There's a plug-in called Disqus that I'm looking at. It may be able to help. I'm worried, though, about all of the old comments. I don't want to lose any.

Aeryl said...

Discus is pretty good, but it is another account to sign up for, something I know I'm reluctant to do(though I already have one, I'm more concerned for the rest of your commentariat).

Anonymous said...

Mother Jones uses Disqus, and recently converted to FB.

Don't know if other options..


prowlerzee said...

I can sympathize with your not wanting to be associated with Jones or the other various truthers, Joseph. Thanks for all this further reading. I wish I were "truly dangerous and brilliantly subversive," as Aaron was described. What higher calling could there be?