MIT's Peace Offering of Aaron Swartz Documents Still Won't Be Enough

Rebecca Greenfield

Under a barrage of heavy criticism from the Aaron Swartz camp that the university never did and still hasn't done enough to support the man who hacked its servers to download some harmless academic files and then killed himself amidst the ensuing investigation, MIT said Tuesday it will release private evidence in the case. MIT president Rafael Reif made the peace offering to lift the veil on documents relating to its servers and network "vulnerabilities," but only after Swartz's lawyers had filed a request for said material on Friday, in an attempt to investigate the prosecution against Swartz, which many have blamed for his suicide. And even though the school will oblige the defense's request, it will do so very much on its own terms — and probably won't satisfy Swartz's family, friends, and legions of followers.

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Reif explained in a letter to the university community that he will make the information public, while maintaining that "openness must be balanced with reasonable concern for privacy and safety." He went on:

Therefore — in the spirit of openness, balanced with responsibility — we will release the requested MIT documents, redacting employee names and identifying information as appropriate to protect their privacy, as well as redacting information about network vulnerabilities.

So, yes, there will be redactions — of "employee names and identifying information as appropriate to protect their privacy, as well as redacting information about network vulnerabilities." (Emphasis ours.) So, a lot of redacting, as this case is essentially centered on those very vulnerabilities.

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The defense, of course, wanted the documents public and not redacted. Former girlfriend and vocal critic of MIT Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman said that the defense's continuing look into the prosecution's harsh tactics could not be carried out in "good faith" unless MIT cooperated. She has not yet responded to Reif's letter, so it's unclear if the incomplete information will suffice for her and Swartz's family. But remarks she made during a memorial service for Swartz last week suggest not: "If the report holds specific people and organizational structures accountable for those mistakes," she said (emphasis ours), as one of the many ways Team Swartz thinks MIT needs to analyze itself in the aftermath of her boyfriend's death. It doesn't appear that the new documents will do that at all.

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In MIT's defense, JSTOR, which never wanted to press charges in the first place after its files were downloaded, had a similar response: "We agreed to the lifting of the protective order so long as the articles downloaded from JSTOR were not released and the identities of our staff are protected," Heidi Mcgregor, a spokesperson, told The Tech, an MIT publication. 

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In addition to handing over its version of evidence in the case, MIT now plans to finally release the "thorough analysis of MIT's involvement" by MIT's own Hal Abelson, an electrical engineering and computer science professor — Reif also comes from that background, and Stinebrickner-Kaufmann has complained about the delay in the report's release as well. The review supposedly will include a "clear record" of what happened in January 2011, and also provide "insight into what MIT did or didn't do, and why," according to The Tech. But that and the MIT evidence, which Reif said would come out in tandem with the internal analysis, likely won't appease the pro-Swartz camp. Stinebrickner-Kaufmann insisted at the memorial service at MIT that the report might do more to cover MIT's involvement than find any new truths: "I have become less hopeful. I fear that the investigation will instead be in the spirit of a bureaucracy."