Hacks and Incidents

This Is the MIT Surveillance Video That Undid Aaron Swartz

This Is the MIT Surveillance Video That Undid Aaron Swartz: The video was made in January 2011, near the end of a months-long cat-and-mouse game between MIT personnel and a then-unknown user who’d been downloading millions of articles from a service called JSTOR, which provides searchable copies of academic journals online. MIT has a subscription that allows free access to students from MIT’s public network. Someone had been sporadically using that access to automatically download one article after another, at times so aggressively that JSTOR’s website was slowed.

On January 4, 2011, MIT technicians traced the downloads to the closet in the basement of Building 16. There they found an Acer laptop wired to MIT’s network and concealed under a box. They called the police, and after some discussion decided to leave the laptop in place so as not to alert the perpetrator. MIT technicians planted the IP camera to see who came back for it.

Those few minutes of glitchy video — capturing Swartz swapping hard drives on his stashed laptop — would prove fateful. After a second visit to the closet two days later, Swartz was arrested nearby and identified.