Shocking new documents obtained by Gizmodo reveal that Reddit co-founder and famed digital activist Aaron Swartz was caught up in warrantless FBI email data collection which would later be used against him in an unrelated case.
Swartz is widely recognized as the face of everything wrong with the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
In 2013, Swartz killed himself after being aggressively prosecuted for downloading academic articles from a subscription-based research website JSTOR – at MIT, his university – with the intention of making them available to the public. He was facing 35 years in prison for his efforts to open access to scientific publications to wider audiences.
“Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves,” Swartz wrote in his Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto. “Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It’s outrageous and unacceptable.”
The newly released documents reveal that in 2008, roughly five years prior to the case that would ultimately lead to him taking his own life, his emails were caught up in an investigation into al Qaeda.
Later that year, Swartz came under investigation by the FBI who were seeking to determine if he had violated any laws by downloading millions of court documents from PACER. The government ultimately did not press charges in that case because the documents were public.
However, according to the new report by Dell Cameron, while the FBI was trying to build a case against the popular activist, they “began quietly building a profile of the oft-described technology ‘wunderkind,’ noting, for example, his involvement in the creation of the formatting language Markdown and RSS 1.0, and jotting down the various code frameworks that Swartz had helped to create and organizations that he had helped to found. Eventually, with all open source avenues exhausted, an FBI employee sat down at a computer terminal that, to most people, would appear plucked straight from the 1980s. The employee ran a search using the bureau’s automated case support system, a portal to the motherlode of FBI investigative files.”
When the FBI employee searched Swartz’ website domain name, it got a hit, which revealed that his domain was involved in an international terrorism investigation — specifically into al Qaeda.
“That any information about Swartz was collected during an Al Qaeda investigation—only to be retrieved nearly two years later for totally unrelated purposes—adds a familiar and sympathetic face to a controversial procedure in intelligence gathering commonly referred to as a ‘backdoor search.’ That is, the FBI gathering information about Americans who are not accused of crimes, often without a warrant; storing that information in databases, sometimes for years; and later accessing it during the course of another investigation that ultimately has nothing to do with terrorism whatsoever. (Backdoor searches are most commonly associated with Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, an authority that was unavailable to the FBI at the time.),” Cameron reports.
Details of the terrorism case remain unknown, but it has become all too common to hear of innocent Americans having their information swept up in these investigations. It is possible that it was part of the FBI’s efforts to target anti-war activists.
We just released new #FOIA lawsuit docs revealing FBI investigation involving #AaronSwartz years before previously known. Involves Al Qaeda, troubling civil liberties issues, & likely national security letters. Great coverage by @dellcam https://t.co/GfKPPyqb2l
— PropertyOfThePeople (@PropOTP) December 14, 2018
The warantless stockpiling of information that would later be used against him should concern everyone.
“Just as Aaron Swartz’s email was apparently picked up here, you could, for instance, have a reporter or some source information scooped up and mined later,” attorney Gabe Rottman, director of the Reporters Committee’s technology and press freedom project told Gizmodo. “And that’s a matter of great concern.”
A compelling documentary on the life of the activist, The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube:
by Cassandra Fairbanks