July 19, 2011, 3:18 PM — A co-founder of social-networking news aggregation site Reddit has been charged with stealing data, not distributing it, a charge that could get him up to 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine.
Aaron Schwartz, 24, was indicted today on charges of data theft over allegations he spent months using MIT's wireless and wired networks to download more than 4 million scientific and academic articles distributed by JSTOR – a commercial service that charges universities as much as $50,000 per year for access to the information.
To get the articles Schwartz allegedly played digital cat-and-mouse with security for both JSTOR and MIT to hide his equipment, storage devices and physical presence. After being chased around the wireless networks for weeks, he eventually, allegedly, broke into a wiring closet to get a physical connection that gave his computers more reliable access but made the whole process more risky for him.
He was arrested Jan. 6 and indicted today for computer fraud, wire fraud and damage to computer systems during the commission of a crime. A statement from JSTOR said the company retrieved all its data and is cooperating with the U.S. Attorney's office that is prosecuting the case.
Schwartz has not yet said anything publicly about the charges or his opinion of JSTOR's commercial service.
In 2007, though, according to his personal site Schwartz founded the nonprofit Open Library, a site designed to be to books what Wikipedia is to concepts. Its goal is to have a web page offering specific information about background, contents, point of view, availability and other information provided by members of the public, on every book ever published.
According to the indictment, Schwartz was trying to download as much of JSTOR's database of research and review articles as possible, then distribute them for free.
Rather than use his own legitimate access to JSTOR through his job as a fellow at the Harvard Ethics Center on Institutional Corruption, he tried to avoid detection by downloading the articles through guest accounts at MIT, which is right down the road from Harvard and offers free wireless access to guests who register with the network.
According to the indictment, Schwartz bought an Acer laptop specifically to serve as a download agent, loaded it up with an application called Keepgrabbing.py to automate the download of content from JSTOR and to get around JSTOR security designed to prevent mass downloads.