Hacker collective Anonymous set it sights on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) this past weekend, hacking into the university’s website on Sunday evening in retaliation for its role in Aaron Swartz’s death.
The attack came just hours after MIT pledged that it would spearhead an investigation into its own activity in the events leading up to Swartz’s suicide.
Swartz, a 26-year-old Internet activist credited with helping create the RSS news reader and the popular website Reddit, reportedly hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment on Friday, Jan. 11. While Swartz did not leave a note and the exact motivation behind his suicide remains unknown, he had been facing mounting legal and financial pressure following his arrest in 2011 for reportedly stealing over four million academic articles through MIT’s computer network.
In a move that was bound to find sympathy with the disruptive aims of a hacktivist collective like Anonymous, Swartz maintained that his actions were ethically justified and done in the service of providing freedom of information to a wider audience online.
On Sunday night, Anonymous brought down MIT’s website entirely for a brief period, then posting a message on the university’s webpage.
“Whether or not the government contributed to his suicide, the government’s prosecution of Swartz was a grotesque miscarriage of justice, a distorted and perverse shadow of the justice Aaron died fighting for,” the Anonymous message said.
“Moreover, the situation Aaron found himself in highlights the injustice of U.S. computer crime laws, particularly their punishment regimes, and the highly questionable justice of pre-trial bargaining,” the statement continued. “Aaron’s act was undoubtedly political activism; it had tragic consequences.”
Before hanging himself, Swartz was facing more than $1 million in fines and 30-plus years in prison on charges of computer fraud, wire fraud and other crimes from the U.S. Attorney’s office. JSTOR, the digital library for academic articles from which Swartz originally swiped the content, had chosen not to pursue action against Swartz after he handed over a number of his hard drives housing the stolen information. The U.S. Attorney’s office was set to begin its trial with Swartz in April.
Many fellow web activists and Swartz’s loved ones have accused the U.S. Attorney’s office of draconian prosecution of Swartz simply because it was trying to make an example out of him.
"Aaron's death is not simply a personal tragedy," Swartz's family said in a statement released shortly after his death. "It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney's office and at MIT contributed to his death."