Chances are that whomever is reading this is in some way benefitting from Aaron Swartz, the technology Whiz Kid that helped invent RSS, the feed service that powers my Blog connection to Facebook and millions of other Internet news readers everyday. This young genius killed himself earlier this year when pushed over the edge by prosectors. Other than the fact that suicide of the young is such a sad tale, why should we, the people at large care?
For a few reasons. One, the Prosecutors decided to press charges when the actual “victim” of the crime, MIT’s JSTOR database chose NOT to press charges. So the state was being heavy-handed already when there was a crime without a victim. In fact Arron downloaded articles from the public domain and released them. Something he has done before, clearly hacktivism. Anyone think to give someone federal criminal charges for protesting animal testing at a Federal Laboratory. Not usually.
Second, the charges where so ridiculous as to inspire incredulity. For the downloading of these PUBLIC articles, Aaron was being charge with over 50 years in Federal Prison. Before you tell me that Prosecutors use harsh penalties to leverage in plea bargaining regularly, wait till you hear the crime. Not only did he re-release public domain documents, not CIA dossiers, but the crimes were to be for violating website Terms of Service (TOS). These are the legalese statements at the bottom of websites. You know those little blurbs that tell us not to reuse their information as our own. The ones no one ever reads.
And finally, how he allegedly did it. Mr. Swartz changed his MAC address. This is the Media Access Control (MAC) twelve digit hexadecimal number that is either burned into every network card at the factory, or randomly generated by some Operating System (OS). This is the number meant to uniquely identify your computer for routing purposes. It was never meant to be used as some form of digital fingerprint. Especially because it can so easily be changed.
So remember, “When everything is illegal, we all become criminals.” -GK