Death and the Hacker

As someone who loves to get something for nothing, I suppose I should be a big fan of Aaron Swartz.

But though I am the former, I am not the latter:

MIT has initiated an investigation into its response to alleged hacking by the late Aaron Swartz, whose suicide Friday prompted Internet freedom advocates to accuse U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz’s office of prosecutorial bullying over Swartz’s alleged cyber-theft of academic documents.

“I want to express very clearly that I and all of us at MIT are extremely saddened by the death of this promising young man who touched the lives of so many,” MIT President L. Rafael Reif wrote yesterday. “It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy.”

Reif ordered an “analysis” of decisions that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology made after Swartz’s alleged hacking of its network in 2010.

Court documents filed the day Swartz hanged himself in his New York apartment indicate federal prosecutors and Swartz’s lawyers were preparing to face off in a Jan. 25 evidentiary hearing over whether a Secret Service search of his seized laptop should be admissible. Prosecutors were expected to argue that Swartz effectively abandoned the laptop when he placed it in a wiring closet at MIT to allegedly steal information remotely.

Swartz faced up to 30 years in prison. Civil libertarians argued prosecutors never should have pursued the case against Swartz.

Swartz’s family has blamed his suicide on an aggressive prosecution. Swartz, 26, co-founder of the news discussion site, had written about the experience of depression on his blog in 2007 — several years before the federal case — as well as in a 2007 short story that ends in the main character stepping out into traffic. His Twitter feed, however, appeared upbeat in recent months, focusing on current topics, such as the minting of a trillion-dollar coin and the computer industry, without apparent references to his federal case or depression.

He didn’t kill himself because of the prosecution. It sounds like he had a good chance to beat it, and his reputation would have been enhanced either way.

No, what’s sad, tragic even, is that a very, very bright young man couldn’t overcome the demons of his mental illness. I’m no expert, but hanging yourself to death betrays a fascination with death more than it does a weariness with life.

No doubt I am grateful to Mr. Swartz every day for his contributions to the Internet—as a blogger and a private user.

But you don’t skate as close to the edge of illegality as he did and not expect that you might fall through the cracks.

I came away from the movie The Social Network with a profound contempt for Mark Zuckerberg. He did swipe the Wincklevosses’ idea, and he was a borderline sociopath. (Clinically, I suppose he could be labeled with Asperger’s Syndrome, or some other social disability.) Similarly, Swartz’s obsession with death and his disregard for property rights leave him just a bit less than sympathetic in my eyes—though I am very sorry he killed himself. He made a difference in the world, and he was only getting started. He might have even convinced me. In his death, I am left to wonder what was right and what was illness.

Two of the figures who contributed most to social networks have similar (though differently expressed) social disabilities. Draw your own conclusions.

1 Comment »

  1. PP206 said,

    January 15, 2013 @ 7:42 am

    Another similar personality was Gene Kan, one of the P2P file-sharing pioneers. In my opinion, he and Swartz are heroes (not so much Zuckerberg). In many ways, the battle Kan fought against the government in 2000 is the same one that Swartz tried to fight.

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