July 19, 2011 — -- A Harvard University student has been charged with hacking into Massachusetts Institute of Technology computers and stealing more than 4 million scholarly articles, book reviews and other content from an academic database.
The federal indictment alleges that Aaron Swartz, 24, of Cambridge, Mass., broke into a restricted computer wiring closet in an MIT basement to access the school's network without permission. He then allegedly downloaded the articles from JSTOR, a nonprofit database for scholarly journals.
Swartz has been charged with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer and recklessly damaging a protected computer.
"Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars," U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz said in a statement. "It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away."
When MIT and JSTOR noticed the unusual activity, they tried to block Swartz's computers, but he allegedly found other ways to access the database.
Swartz is well known in the technology community as an online activist and programmer. He is the founder of Demand Progress, a nonprofit political action group that works for policy change.
Swartz also co-founded Reddit, a social news site now owned by Conde Nast. He was most recently a fellow at Harvard's Ethics Center Lab on Institutional Corruption.
"This makes no sense," Swartz's colleague Demand Progress Executive Director David Segal said in a statement. "It's like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library."
Segal claims that JSTOR settled its issues with Swartz privately and asked the government not to prosecute. A letter of support for Swartz posted on the Demand Progress website garnered more than 15,000 supporters in less than three hours.
"Aaron's career has focused on serving the public interest by promoting ethics, open government and democratic politics," Segal said. "We hope to see him cleared of these bizarre charges."
Swartz was arrested today after turning himself in. He appeared in court today with his parents and was released on a $100,000 bail.
While JSTOR will not comment on the specifics of the investigation, it said in a statement, "We secured from Mr. Swartz the content that was taken, and received confirmation that the content was not and would not be used, copied, transferred, or distributed."
A university subscription to JSTOR can cost up to $50,000 a year.
Swartz is charged with stealing the documents in order to download them onto his personal computer. Investigators believe he intended to distribute the articles on file-sharing websites.
The Swartz family did not respond to requests for comment.
If convicted, Swartz faces up to 35 years in jail and a $1 million fine.