An MIT surveillance video released to the public today reveals the "sting" operation that led to the arrest of Aaron Swartz, the programmer and activist who committed suicide while facing a federal criminal probe for hacking. The video taken in January 2011, shows a shaggy-haired Swartz entering a network wiring closet back on the MIT campus, and removing the hard drives from a computer he had allegedly set up in there to download millions of academic articles from the JSTOR database and later upload to public websites.
This video was the first to identify Swartz as the hacker culprit, and he would be arrested two days later after a second visit to the closet. He was charged by federal prosecutors with wire fraud and theft — charges that were dropped after Swartz committed suicide earlier this year.
The video is also part of a judicially ordered release of the Secret Service file of Swartz. Wired broke down some of the new key details behind the implicating video and why it was shot in the first place.
After noticing an aggressive number of downloads from JSTOR via the school's network, MIT technicians traced the source of the downloads to this basement closet, where they found a hidden laptop had been connected. After consulting with police, they left the computer connected and rigged up the hidden camera to see who came back for it. In the video, Swartz can be seen taking a hard drive out of a cardboard box, and then bending down out of screen (at the 1:00 mark).
Then at about 9:40, Swartz packs up the hard drive, turns off the light, and exits the room. That was the key evidence identifying Swartz, who would face 13 felony charges for computer and wire fraud. Wired explains:
Looking at the video, it’s easy to see what MIT and the Secret Service presumably saw — a furtive hacker going someplace he shouldn’t go, doing something he shouldn’t do.
Because Swartz, the open-source activist and one of the early developers of both RSS and Reddit, committed suicide before trial, his case has been surrounded by both mystery and outrage. Family members and supporters blame the overly aggressive federal prosecutors for driving Swartz to his death. This video, and the accompanying documents, provide more background, but ultimately do little to settle the arguments about his case.. The entire stretch of documents is available here.