Monday, January 14, 2013

Aaron Swartz

Downtown Construction near Courthouse
Aaron Swartz was 26 when he took his life. That's the same age as my oldest daughter, a truly  frightening contrast for a parent. I knew of Aaron in a detached sort of way, from his exploits and the resultant stories. I never gave him too much more thought until I read of his suicide Friday morning.

I've had a few days to think about Aaron Swartz's short but powerful 26 year life. I've read and re-read just about all that's been written about him since he took his life. I wanted to wait and see what the U.S. attorney Carmen Ortiz, the ignorant fool who stripped him of just about everything he ever had before driving Aaron to take his own life. In the end, the government "quietly dropped" all charges against him. Ortiz declined to comment.

It should be noted that the string of trumped up, over-criminalized charges filed against Aaron would have had him facing more prison time than murderers, bank robbers, slave dealers, child pornographers, al-Qaeda sympathisers, or even someone threatening to kill the President. All for downloading public domain data paid for by public funds from JSTOR at a public university, MIT. JSTOR dropped all charges while MIT was deliberately vague, allowing Ortiz to continue with her vindictive, ignorant, and eventually murderous prosecution.

I took the photo Sunday while I was taking the group of photos I used in yesterday's post about the loss of greenspace in Orlando. The MetLife blimp was flying around the area, and I started to grab a series of shots. When I got home this one seemed to resonate with me more than all the others. I played with it a bit, creating a dark analogy of what I was thinking and feeling at the time. A lone bright spark, flying through darkening skies, headed towards a black monolith, our courthouse, leaning ominously towards the blimp.

I'm an old-style hacker. I came of age during the period where you could go just about anywhere in a computer system. Hacks weren't destructive, they were mental puzzles expressed in software, the more sophisticated and subtle the better. They showed you understood not just a language but the whole system, from hardware to OS and on up and out. Aaron was an anomaly, a fresh young spirit from that period somehow living in the 21st century. We're all the poorer for his passing. For all the others that might still be out there, we need to find them, mentor them, and above all protect them from the ignorant and powerful like U.S. attorney Ortiz who have absolute no conscious, no compunction to do them harm in pursuit of their own twisted personal agenda.


Quoted from The Verge: The family of Aaron Swartz pulled no punches in their comments after the 26-year-old's suicide, blaming a "criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach." Assistant United States Attorney Stephen Heymann is one of the individuals that's been named in particular — and it turns out Swartz isn't the first subject of a Heymann investigation that's taken his own life. Buzzfeed reports that in 2008 Jonathan James also committed suicide two weeks after having his home raided as part of Heymann's TJX hacker investigation. James was suspected of being "JJ," an unindicted co-conspirator, but claimed to have had nothing to do with the crimes in question.

"I have no faith in the 'justice' system," James wrote in his suicide note. "Perhaps my actions today, and this letter, will send a stronger message to the public. Either way, I have lost control over this situation, and this is my only way to regain control."

In an interview with the Huffington Post, Swartz's attorney Elliot Peters accuses Heymann of pursuing federal charges against his client in order to drum up publicity. The prosecutor was in search of "some juicy looking computer crime cases and Aaron's case, sadly for Aaron, fit the bill," Peters said, remarking that Heymann thought he "was going to receive press and he was going to be a tough guy and read his name in the newspaper."

Peters accuses Heymann of being particularly hardline when negotiating potential plea deals as well, threatening Swartz with increasingly-long prison sentences if the 26-year-old didn't accept what he was being offered. According to Peters, the prosecutor also harassed several of Swartz's friends into testifying in front of a grand jury.


  1. Unbelievable what these guys get away with. We've had a similar case here in Germany. Maybe I shouldn't tell anyone that once I was given the title of an 'honorary member' of the "CAC", which stood for "Computer Artists Cologne" - a local sub-chapter (as Harley guys would say) of the Hamburg-based "CCC" (Chaos Computer Club"...

    Those were the days. We were proud to call ourselves "hackers" - something the world never really understood.

    1. Ah, yes. The Chaosknoten. It came into existence in 1981, the year I really started to hit my stride in software engineering, three years after I "retired" from attempting to make a living as a commercial photographer in Atlanta. I really started to pay attention to the CCC in the early 1990s, and my interest in the CCC grew in parallel with my interest in 386BSD and the very earliest Linux distributions. It's no accident that I was a heavy user of the original German Linux distribution Software und System-Entwicklung, or S.u.S.E., later SUSE, and even later, openSUSE. I miss my SUSE 10 installation, which you can search for on the blog. In hindsight I wish Novell had never purchased SUSE.

      Today I stay pretty much with Fedora more as a formality, but I'm still drawn to OpenSUSE. And with what has been happening, I need to begin to build a set of tools for the inevitable confrontations with authority. In particular I'm looking at encrypted file systems and hardening interfaces. Fedora and openSUSE provide both.

      Are there any more interesting German-created, current Linux distributions?

    2. Hmmm the best known after Suse should be Knoppix I think, which got its name because of its inventor Klaus Knopper. That's a pure live system.

      I lost track a bit of all those hundreds of distributions out there. Ok; here in Germany I guess most of us started with Suse at some point; at least I did. Later it was Red Hat - that was in the days before Fedora even existed. Then I tried some BSDs and later built my own Gentoo system. But it all changed for me with the discovery of Debian, which is the one I'm still using. Not in all its iterations anymore since I gave up becoming a proper Debian Developer (because lack of time), but I still have lots of contacts amongst the dev crew - many of them being from Germany. There's the which lists and displays lots of the dev's blogs; I still visit that from time to time.

      My wife and more or less the rest of the family are using Ubuntu, which is based on Debian 'Sid' (unstable). Me - I need a working system, so it's Debian stable (which still has Gnome 2, like the commercial Red Hat versions do).

    3. Oh, and I'm listed as a contributor to Frank Ronneburg's Debian User's Manual, on the support page at - leave away that 'dank.html' to get to the index page. It includes a Google Translate header.

      But to be honest, I even forgot what my contribution was. Maybe proof reading only - cannot remember.


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