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Summary:

MIT will publish documents now under seal about the Aaron Swartz prosecution, but it will edit them to protect individuals’ privacy and the security of the school’s networks, according to MIT president Rafael Reif.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology will release documents related to the case against activist Aaron Swartz but it will edit out names and other information, according to a letter from MIT president Rafael Reif to the MIT community. That will probably not be enough to satisfy Swartz’s legal team and other supporters who say MIT and overzealous prosecutors contributed to Swartz’s death.

Whiteboard set up at MIT Media Lab for Aaron Swartz memorial.

Whiteboard set up at MIT Media Lab for Aaron Swartz memorial.

Late last week, lawyers for Swartz, the 26-year old programmer and civic activist who killed himself in January, requested that these documents be released to the public.

Swartz’s father Robert Swartz, his partner Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman and his lawyers maintain that Swartz was railroaded by both MIT and the U.S. Attorney’s office, which prosecuted him on criminal charges for downloading too many articles from JSTOR, a database of academic articles.

In the letter, Reif said MIT remains committed to openness but needs to protect the privacy of individuals mentioned in the documents and the security of the school’s networks. He acknowledged that Swartz’s lawyers expressly requested that no names be excluded or redacted. But, he wrote:

“In the time since Aaron Swartz’s suicide, we have seen a pattern of harassment and personal threats. In this volatile atmosphere, I have the responsibility to protect the privacy and safety of those members of our community who have become involved in this matter in the course of doing their jobs for MIT, and to ensure a safe environment for all of us who call MIT home.”

(The full text of the letter is also available on pastebin.)

The controversy has rippled throughout the MIT community and beyond. Last month, an anonymous caller reported an armed man on campus, prompting a lockdown. MIT later said the caller  said the alleged shooter was out to avenge Swartz’s death. MIT also later called the whole incident a hoax. The school has also said its computer systems have been hacked three times since Swartz died.

A few weeks after Swartz’s death, MIT named Hal Abelson, a professor emeritus of computer science, to head up an inquiry into the school’s role in this matter, but at a memorial service for Swartz last week at MIT’s Media Lab, Stinbrickner-Kauffman expressed skepticism about the process, saying she feared a PR whitewash.

This story was updated at 8:00 a.m. PDT with additional information about the MIT shooter hoax and other fallout from the Swartz case.

  1. What I’m waiting to learn is where MIT is coming out on the long-festering culture war between the traditional scientific and academic research culture vs the bureaucratic and security-driven culture.

    But what I think MIT really needs here is a Truth and Reconciliation Process with the participation of all parties (including the DoJ and Secret Service). (As if that would ever happen in my lifetime.)

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  2. Swartz was no hero.

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