A self-styled digital Robin Hood downloaded more than 4 million academic articles before being tracked down by US authorities in a case that promises to become a cause célèbre for data use and freedom of information.
A grand jury in Massachusetts has indicted Aaron Swartz, a 24-year-old programmer and fellow at Harvard University’s Safra Centre for Ethics, on charges of wire and computer fraud for his marathon downloading spree.
The indictment also alleges that Swartz caused damage of at least $5,000 to computers and unlawfully obtained information over more than three months while he was copying the huge cache of articles from the database of Jstor, the giant US-based online academic repository.
Starting with a standard Acer laptop, Swartz began by using anonymous log-ins on the network of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in September 2010. As the size of his downloads began to alarm MIT and Jstor staff they kept trying to block Swartz’s access — only for the 24-year-old to evade their attempts using simple techniques to disguise his log ins and mask his computer.
In desperation, Jstor eventually blocked the entire MIT network from access to its vast database for several days in October 2010 — cutting off one of the world’s premier research universities from the millions of scientific journals and academic articles Jstor holds.
But even then, the coder is alleged to have bypassed them by entering a restricted network interface room on MIT’s campus and wiring his equipment directly to its network.