Threat Management, Network Security, Vulnerability Management

Reddit co-founder charged with intrusion, data theft

The co-founder of social news website Reddit was indicted Tuesday in Boston on charges of breaking into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) network and stealing more than four million documents from JSTOR, an archive of scientific and academic journals.

The indictment charges Aaron Swartz, 24, with wire and computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer. If convicted, Swartz faces up to 35 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million.

Prosecutors said Swartz broke into a restricted computer wiring closet in the basement at MIT. He then  accessed the school's network from a computer switch within the closet and downloaded 4.8 million articles from JSTOR onto his computer. The stolen documents did not contain any personally identifiable information.

Of the articles stolen, approximately 1.7 million were made available by independent publishers for purchase through JSTOR. Swartz allegedly intended to distribute the documents through one or more file-sharing sites, according to the indictment.

Swartz, a resident of Cambridge, Mass., is a well-known online political activist and programmer. He is a founder and former director of the nonprofit Demand Progress, a political action group that advocates for civil rights and liberties.

David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress, said in a statement sent to on Tuesday that the indictment “makes no sense” and called the charges “bizarre.”

“It's like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library," Segal said. “It's even more strange because the alleged victim has settled any claims against Aaron, explained they've suffered no loss or damage, and asked the government not to prosecute.”

In a statement released Tuesday, JSTOR said it has been subpoenaed by the U.S. Attorney's Office and is fully cooperating. JSTOR said it became aware of the theft through regular monitoring.

“We stopped this downloading activity, and the individual responsible, Mr. Swartz, was identified,” the statement said. “We secured from Mr. Swartz the content that was taken, and received confirmation that the content was not and would not be used, copied, transferred, or distributed.”

An MIT spokeswoman declined comment.

Swartz was arraigned in U.S. District Court in Boston on Tuesday where he pleaded innocent to all counts. He was released on $100,000 bail, and his next court date is scheduled for Sept. 9. 

During the time of the theft, Swartz ironically was a fellow at Harvard University, through which he could have accessed JSTOR services for legitimate research, prosecutors said.

Swartz allegedly used a software program to automate the downloading process and evade detection by  monitoring systems, prosecutors said. The massive amount of downloads damaged JSTOR's computers, brought down some of its servers and prevented some MIT computers from accessing research.

“Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars,” Carmen Ortiz, U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, said in a statement. “It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away.”

Swartz's Boston-based attorney, Andrew Good, could not immediately be reached for comment by on Tuesday.

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