Aaron Swartz Day co-founder Lisa Rein talks about about her work with the annual hackathon. Founded in 2013 after the death of activist and programming wunderkind Aaron Swartz, the event draws attention to Aaron’s story in hopes of protecting others from similar circumstances and offers a yearly showcase of the many projects initiated by Aaron as well as new projects inspired directly by him and his work.
Lisa also talks about her background as archivist for Chelsea Manning: “When I learned more about Chelsea, without getting into whether you agree with what she did or what she didn’t do, she definitely followed her heart and wanted to improve the world and that’s an Aaron Swartz Day thing.”
You might ask, like I did, what Aaron’s actions had to do with “computer crimes.” Aaron hadn’t broken into a secure network and stolen credit card numbers. He hadn’t stolen anyone’s healthcare data. He hadn’t violated anyone’s privacy. He hadn’t caused anybody to lose any money. There are things that are “computer crimes” that we all recognize are invasive and dangerous, and this was not one of them.
But Steve Heymann did what bureaucrats and functionaries often choose to do. He wanted make a big case to justify his existence and justify his budget. The casualties be damned.
..He had the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which is an over broad federal statute that has been made more broad by federal prosecutors trying to stretch its terms. But under the indictment in Aaron’s case, the government still had to prove that Aaron had gained unauthorized access to a computer system. Our defense was really pretty simple. There were going to be other nuances, and we were going to talk a lot about Aaron’s motivations and the type of person Aaron was, but our bottom line was going to be that Aaron had done only what MIT permitted him to do. He hadn’t gained unauthorized access to anything. He had gained access to JSTOR with full authorization from MIT. Just like anyone in the jury pool, anyone reading Boing Boing, or anyone in the country could have done.
We hoped that the jury would understand that and would acquit Aaron, and it quickly became obvious to us that there really wasn’t going to be opportunity to resolve the case short of trial because Steve Heymann was unreasonable.
Of course, after Aaron’s passing, it’s really easy for them to say “35 years. That was a bluff. It was never gonna happen.” That was not what they were telling us. Heymann always insisted on a sentence of hard time in Federal Prison. We said, “this is really a very trivial thing. Can’t we resolve it with probation or some other thing that made a little more sense and would make it possible for Aaron to go on with his life?”
He said “no.” He insisted that Aaron plead to a felony and serve prison time. And of course, what he said, as prosecutors often do, is that if we go to trial, it won’t be so easy, and if we lose, well, this is a tough judge, and the prosecution is going to recommend a very difficult sentence. Aaron may end up having a term of years.
Programmers, journalists and whistleblowers flocked to San Francisco to speak during the conference. Representatives from the Tor Project, which advocates for online anonymity, and Glenn Greenwald’s project The Intercept were in attendance. In addition, Chelsea Manning, the Army lieutenant who leaked sensitive documents to Wikileaks in 2010, wrote a letter of support to the conference from her prison cell in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
The day was more than just a parade of experts talking and guests listening. “Aaron would not have wanted people to mope around about him,” says Rein. “He would have wanted us to build new things.”
More than 30 computer programmers huddled together around foldable tables in the foyer and typed away at assigned projects. One of these projects was Privacy Badger, a third-party tracker-blocking application built by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital rights advocacy group. While Privacy Badger helped stop hidden trackers from following one’s digital footrpints, the application sometimes disabled images and videos from being displayed, and thus needed some outside help…
“Aaron led an open source life and took the open source movement to another level,” says Kahle. “Programming for the social good is still very much alive. But we, the general public, all screwed up by taking the life of a promising young man.”
In the evening, the Internet Archives hosted a dinner banquet during which several speakers, including Kahle and those from the afternoon conference, took turns saying a few words about Swartz. At the close, Manning’s letter was read aloud by Rein.
Manning spoke about the “paradox” of technology leaving society more connected and open and yet more paranoid and insecure. She asked the guests to use their technologies for a better, freer and more private Internet, as Swartz would have wanted.
“I now believe that today’s coders and engineers have an extra ‘hat’ that we have to wear on top of the colorful spectrum of hats we already have—namely, the technology ethicist and moralist hat,” reads Manning’s letter. “Technology is only a toolbox. It’s what we create our software for, what we intend to use it for, and who we allow to use it, and how much, that really count.”
…Swartz has become something of a martyr. Not in some pathetic, quixotic way. His life, his work and his untimely demise have inspired a whole generation of ‘hacktivists’ and other open Internet advocates who are hard at work fighting battles in defense of net neutrality and against corporatization of the Internet, government surveillance and other pressing problems.
“Since there are projects like SecureDrop (an open-source whistleblower submission system managed by Freedom of the Press Foundation) going strong, and policy movements aimed at protecting innovative students on college campuses, and more updates on the ongoing fight to have Aaron’s government documents released to the public, and so many people willing to do amazing projects in his honor, I decided to just try to include everything I could, and see how large it became,” Lisa Rein, co-founder of Creative Commons and host of The Internet Archive hackathon, told the Daily Dot.
“Aaron doesn’t deserve to go down in history as some malicious hacker out to steal and make money from his loot somehow,” added Rein.
Purcell agreed, telling the audience of several dozen than what Swartz did was “not hacking.”
“It was walking through a door that was left open for anyone to walk through,” the attorney insisted, calling Swartz’s alleged ‘crime’ “a harmless effort to point out a problem.”
Director Brian Knappenberger was on hand at the San Francisco event for a screening of his critically-acclaimed documentary feature, The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz.
A panel discussion and audience Q&A followed. Many attendees had personal connections to Swartz. There was much talk of how activists could honor his memory.
Swartz would have been 28 years this week, on Nov. 8. To celebrate his life and legacy, communities across the globe will observe Aaron Swartz Day on his birthday. He fought for an open and thriving Internet but also for causes like ending corruption and government secrecy, and the day in his honor will mark the full range of his accomplishments and his battles, which remain alive today.
Swartz was adamantly opposed to laws like SOPA and PIPA that he believed would have allowed corporations to shut down free expression and frustrate an open Internet. What many don’t realize is that he also feared government surveillance, well before Snowden arrived. “One thing that Aaron didn’t see—is he didn’t see Snowden,” Brian Knappenberger, director of a documentary about Swartz’s life called “The Internet’s Own Boy,” told Truthdig. “We have footage in the film that talked about Aaron being concerned about NSA surveillance and overreach that was a year before Snowden came forward.”
Knappenberger said Swartz was waiting for a moment when people would realize how serious a problem government surveillance was becoming, and he died before he could witness the Snowden revelations. Instead of learning from what happened to Swartz and being more lenient with Internet activists, “lawmakers in the government just get worse about whistle-blowers and hacktivists by going after them even stronger,” Knappenberger said.
Knappenberger worries when he sees the Obama administration creating “insider threat” programs that encourage people with top-secret clearance to turn in co-workers who they believe might leak information. Sometimes, a recent divorce can be considered a reason for the government to suspect that an employee might leak information. Knappenberger said the U.S. government is targeting legal whistle-blowing instead of dealing with illegal activity such as warrantless surveillance being carried out by its branches.
Prosecutors painted him as the bad kind of hacker—the Hollywood sort who breaks into computer networks with a flurry of keystrokes to steal top-secret information.
“It’s just nonsense. Of course Aaron was a hacker in the broad sense of the term, but in terms of the criminal term, he was no hacker and he didn’t do anything like that,” said Dan Purcell, a partner at the law firm of Keker & Van Nest LLP in San Francisco. Purcell would have represented Swartz had his case gone to trial. Instead, Swartz committed suicide in Jan. 2013, before the trial commenced.
“What Aaron did, whether you call it a prank or a consciousness-raising exercise, it was not a crime.”
This distinction is an important one for organizers of the memorial hackathon, like Lisa Rein, cofounder of Creative Commons, who selected “setting the record straight” as the theme for this year’s event. Like Purcell, she emphasized that Swartz’s actions were far from criminal.
But as much as Aaron Swartz Day is about dispersing misconceptions about what it means to be a hacker, it’s also about simply hacking.
RT: Aaron Swartz was basically driven to suicide for standing up to the government for what he believes in. Do you think his fate will put others off following in his footsteps?
Brian Knappenberger: No. I mean I think that treatment of Aaron Swartz was awful and it was outrageous. But I actually think that if it was meant to be a kind of persecution to put people off of this kind of behavior, I think it backfired. If it was meant as deterrence, or it was meant to make an example, as the prosecution said to Aaron’s dad and to Aaron’s council, I think that effort, probably, backfired.
People are inspired, looked at what he did and are inspired by it. I don’t think that the legal efforts against him actually would put off future Aarons. And if anything they’ll inspire them.
Online hacktivists are holding a “hackathon” spanning two days to honor the would-have-been birthday of dead computer programmer and hacktivist Aaron Swartz.
The hackathon will be a global phenomenon, spanning 11 cities including Berlin, Boston, New York, Buenos Aires and Oxford, according to its affiliated website. However, its main location will be in San Francisco where programmers, developers, artists, researchers, and activists gather together, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
Swartz was a bright young programmer who committed suicide while facing prosecution under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). Since his death came in the midst of his prosecution, it eliminated the possibility of clearing his name in court. But, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s newly-appointed executive director Cindy Cohn notes in The Internet’s Own Boy, the case against Swartz was “a poor use of prosecutorial discretion.” Aaron Swartz Day aims to raise awareness about the facts of Swartz’s case and demonstrate that the criminality of his actions—using software to download millions of academic documents from JSTOR—was questionable at best.
“Aaron doesn’t deserve to go down in history as some malicious hacker out to steal and make money from his loot somehow,” Rein said in an email to the Daily Dot. “Since there are projects like SecureDrop going strong, and policy movements aimed at protecting innovative students on college campuses, and more updates on the ongoing fight to have Aaron’s government documents released to the public, and so many people willing to do amazing projects in his honor, I decided to just try to include everything I could, and see how large it became.”