Tag Archives: Kevin Poulsen

Aaron Would Have Been 35 Years Old Today

It has been eight years since Aaron’s death, on January 11, 2013.

We miss you Aaron.

November 8, 2021 would have been Aaron’s 35th birthday, but instead we mourn our friend and wonder what could have been, had he not taken his own life seven years ago after being terrorized by a career-driven prosecutor and U.S. Attorney who decided to just make shit up, make an example out of Aaron, impress their bosses and further their own careers.

As it turns out though, Aaron’s downloading wasn’t even illegal, as he was a Harvard Ethics Fellow at the time and Harvard and MIT had contractual agreements allowing Aaron to access those materials en masse.

But all this didn’t come to light until it was too late.

Aaron was careful not to tell his friends too much about his case for fear he would involve them in the quagmire. In truth, we wouldn’t have minded doing anything we could to help him, but we didn’t realize he needed help, and that his grand jury’s runaway train had gone so far off the rails.

We should have known though, as Grand Juries are a dangerous, outdated practice that give prosecutors unlimited power, making it easy to manipulate the way that witnesses and evidence are presented to the Grand Jury and convince jurors of almost anything. These kinds of proceedings also often violate the subject and witness’ constitutional rights in different ways. For these reasons, most civilized countries have transitioned away from them in favor of preliminary hearings.

We learned many other lessons from his case, after the smoke had cleared. We learned that Aaron’s Grand Jury prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Heymann, and the U.S. Attorney in charge of his case, Carmen Ortiz, were so obsessed with trying to make names for themselves, they were  willing to fabricate charges and evidence in order get indictments that would otherwise be unachievable.

As Dan Purcell explained:

“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…

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.”

We also learned that MIT was more concerned with their own reputation than standing up for the truth or protecting Aaron. In fact, we learned that MIT decided to assist the government with its case against Aaron, rather than helping him by pressuring to Feds to drop the case, even after JSTOR had made it clear it did not wish to prosecute.

We know all this because Kevin Poulsen explained to us how he had to sue the Department of Homeland Security to get access to documents in Aaron’s FBI file, and that MIT blocked their release – intervening as a third party – and demanding to get a chance to further redact them before they were released to Kevin – and the Judge granted their request! Only time will tell what MIT was so worried about, but its behavior suggests that there may have been some kind of cover-up  regarding its involvement in Aaron’s case.

Most recently, thanks to Property of the People’s Ryan Shapiro, we learned that Aaron had an erroneous code in his FBI record  that meant “International Terrorism involving Al Qaeda” – deriving from his sending a single email to the University of Pittsburg, which might explain why the FBI was so suspicious of him during his case.

There are still many pieces of the puzzle missing, but we won’t stop trying to put it all together. We hope you will join us on November 13th to honor him and learn about his projects and ideas that are still bearing fruit to this day, such as SecureDrop, Open Library, and the Aaron Swartz Day Police Surveillance Project.

Until then, we will continue to come together to help each other and share information, knowledge and resources, and to try to make things better in our world.


 Howl For Aaron Swartz (by Brewster Kahle)

Howl for Aaron Swartz

Written by Brewster Kahle, shortly after Aaron’s Death, on January 11, 2013.

Howl for Aaron Swartz
New ways to create culture
Smashed by lawsuits and bullying
Laws that paint most of us criminal

Inspiring young leaders
Sharing everything
Living open source lives
Inspiring communities selflessly

Organizing, preserving
Sharing, promoting
Then crushed by government
Crushed by politicians, for a modest fee
Crushed by corporate spreadsheet outsourced business development

New ways
New communities
Then infiltrated, baited
Set-up, arrested

Celebrating public spaces
Learning, trying, exploring
Targeted by corporate security snipers
Ending up in databases
Ending up in prison

Traps set by those that promised change
Surveillance, wide-eyes, watching everyone now
Government surveillance that cannot be discussed or questioned
Corporate surveillance that is accepted with a click

Terrorists here, Terrorists there
More guns in schools to promote more guns, business
Rendition, torture
Manning, solitary, power

Open minds
Open source
Open eyes
Open society

Public access to the public domain
Now closed out of our devices
Closed out of owning books
Hands off
Do not open
Criminal prosecution

Traps designed by the silicon wizards
With remarkable abilities to self-justify
Traps sprung by a generation
That vowed not to repeat
COINTELPRO and dirty tricks and Democratic National Conventions

Government-produced malware so sophisticated
That career engineers go home each night thinking what?
Saying what to their families and friends?

Debt for school
Debt for houses
Debt for life
Credit scores, treadmills, with chains

Inspiring and optimistic explorers navigating a sea of traps set by us
I see traps ensnare our inspiring generation
Leaders and discoverers finding new ways and getting crushed for it


Kevin Poulsen at Aaron Swartz Day 2014 – Details On Poulsen v. DHS

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Download a Hi-res (.mov) file of Kevin’s Talk

Kevin Poulsen filed a lawsuit over access to the Federal law enforcement documents about Aaron Swartz.  MIT intervened in the case as an interested third party – and was awarded the privilege of further redacting the documents before they were made public.

Bottom Line: MIT’s intervention has caused these documents to be released at a much slower rate, so they could redact information about their involvement with the government against Aaron.

The files are all here now at swartzfiles.com.

Here is a complete transcription of last year’s presentation by Kevin Poulsen on this topic. (Let’s band together to put pressure on the U.S. Government to release these files now. :-)

(In case you are just learning about this, I am also including a complete list of references on this topic at the bottom of this post.)

Complete transcription:

My name’s Kevin Poulsen. I’m a contributing editor at Wired magazine, and I’m the one that recruited Aaron to do the project that is now “SecureDrop.” While my presentation is getting set up I’ll say that what the Freedom of the Press Foundation and everybody who’s contributed to that project at the hackathons has made of that greatly exceeds I think, any expectations that Aaron had for that when he was working on it. It’s an astonishing, astonishing achievement, and one that’s become far more important than it was even when we started.

I’ve been asked to talk about my Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security, and where we stand with the files.

For those just tuning in: After Aaron passed, I, as well as a lot of other journalists and bloggers and independent investigators, very quickly filed Freedom of Information Act requests with the Secret Service, and we all received the same letter (page 3), where the agency summarily denied the request on the grounds that it pertained to an ongoing law enforcement investigation, which was ludicrous under the circumstances.

I filed an appeal. (page 1) The department ignored the appeal, and then, I, with the help of David Sobel, and attorney with EFF and one of the greatest FOIA litigators in the country, we sued DHS and, very quickly, got a court order obliging them to start producing document. (Applause.)

At that point, MIT and JSTOR moved to intervene in the case. They were concerned that, despite the government’s great skill at redacting documents, that some information might slip through that would identify MIT or JSTOR personnel who contributed to the investigation, and they might face some sort of retaliation. Probably from Anonymous.

We reached an agreement with them, where they’re allowed to preview each collection of documents before it’s released to me and suggest redactions of their own. There was some concern at the time that they would abuse that to redact more than just identifying information. So far, it looks like the redactions have just been a word here or there, and email addresses and that sort of thing.

What we’ve gotten so far is 2,889 pages, 177 photos and 11 videos, including the video of Aaron being booked at the Cambridge Police Department.

In the last batch. This will be of interest to maybe two or three of you, that really closely follow this. In the last batch, we actually got the Python script that Aaron wrote to extract the documents from JSTOR. This is actually the thing that I’m asked about the most is “when is keepgrabbing.py going to be released?”

Aaron Swartz' Keepgrabbing.py script
Aaron Swartz’ Keepgrabbing.py script

Script Transcribed on GitHub

In the last two batches, we’ve seen for the first time some large blocks of material being redacted, and they’re being redacted under FOIA Exemption B5, “Pre-decision Deliberative Processes.” So, if the government is working on something, and they haven’t made a decision, and they’re exchanging memos and back and forth discussing what to do, that’s when that would apply. Or a draft of a treaty. That sort of thing.

And for the first time we’re seeing a notation indicating that an outside agency, not the Secret Service, and not DHS, has made those redactions, and it’s the Executive Office of the U.S. Attorney. And all of these redactions appear to be emails either from or two Stephen Heymann, the prosecutor on the case. So, it’s hard to tell what’s being redacted by definition. It’s not there. But, as it turns out, MIT and JSTOR also released documents, in the wake of the controversy over all of this, and some of them were messages that were redacted from the government’s release. So, we actually can see what’s underneath them. And it’s nothing that you would call a smoking gun. It’s more like, very puzzling why they would want to redact this. So this, message to MIT, from Steve Heymann, or (correction) to JSTOR, from the prosecutor, is asking about the naming of the PDF files that were downloaded. It baffles me as to why they would consider this sensitive.

This one, huge block of redacted text, here, is the reply from JSTOR. You’d imagine this is going to be the Pentagon Papers or something. And no, it’s a detailed examination of the numbering system that JSTOR uses for numbering their documents. Keep in mind this was released by JSTOR voluntarily and redacted by the U.S. Government for reasons of their own. And then this one, again, an entire block. It turns out to be the stuff that the prosecutor is asking MIT to bring to an interview. So this, I think, bears some further scrutiny. I just discovered the unredacted versions of these in the JSTOR documents yesterday, so I haven’t had a chance to talk to David Sobel about it yet. But to me, it looks a little questionable.

If you want to see the documents for yourself. This week, I’ve compiled them all into a single place: swartzfiles.com. You’ll also find the FBI and US Marshall’s files on Aaron there, and a compilation of all the files that have been released by MIT and JSTOR to date, as well as all the videos and the photographs that I just described.

More Articles and Resources about Kevin’s FOIA case and MIT’s intervening:

1. Swartzfiles.com    http://swartzfiles.com/

2. WIRED’s Kevin Poulsen on managing investigations, Aaron Swartz and why leaks are the new FOIA – Muckrock.com, by George LeVines – August 2, 2013

3. First 100 Pages of Aaron Swartz’s Secret Service File Released
Kevin Poulsen    Security Date of Publication: 08.12.13.
08.12.13 http://www.wired.com/2013/08/swartz-foia-release/

4.  Secret Service Report Noted Aaron Swartz’s ‘Depression Problems’, Kevin Poulsen, Wired, 11.07.13 http://www.wired.com/2013/11/swartz-foia-november/

5.  MIT blocking release of Aaron Swartz’s Secret Service files BoingBoing, Cory Doctorow, Jul 18, 2013 http://boingboing.net/2013/07/18/mit-blocking-release-of-aaron.html

6. Judge orders Secret Service to release Aaron Swartz’s files
Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow  Jul 9, 2013  http://boingboing.net/2013/07/09/judge-orders-secret-service-to.html

7. MIT asks to intervene in Swartz FOIA suit
July 19, 2013 by Ed Felten https://freedom-to-tinker.com/blog/felten/mit-asks-to-intervene-in-swartz-foia-suit/

8. Aaron Swartz FOIA video playlist

9.  MIT intervenes in FOIA release of Aaron Swartz documents, seeks ‘pre-release review’  By Nathan Ingraham, The Verge, July 18, 2013 http://www.theverge.com/2013/7/18/4536566/mit-intervenes-in-foia-release-of-aaron-swartz-documents

10.  The MIT surveillance video used against Aaron Swartz is now public By Dell Cameron, Dec 4, 2013 http://www.dailydot.com/news/aaron-swartz-mit-surveilance-video-released/


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