Aaron Swartz’s FOIA Requests Shed Light on His Struggle

Aaron Swartz at a 2008 Creative Commons panel.Aaron Swartz at a 2008 Creative Commons panel. (Photo: dsearls)It looked like Aaron Swartz was up to something.

Two months before his death, the high-profile Internet activist filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the US Mint and asked for copies of its 2005 survey results which claimed, “147 million adults continued to collect the 50 State Quarters … the most successful coin program in the nation’s history.”

The 50 State Quarters Program report Swartz cited in his November 24 FOIA request said the US Mint “shipped 34.3 billion quarter-dollar coins to the Federal Reserve Banks (FRB), generating $8.6 billion in revenue and nearly $6.3 billion in seigniorage, which helps finance the national debt.”

“The United States Mint estimated it shipped 16.3 billion more coins to the FRB than it would have in the absence of the Program. Consequently, the Agency attributes $4.1 billion in revenue and $3.0 billion in seigniorage solely to the 50 State Quarters Program,” according to the report. “The sale of 50 State Quarters numismatic products generated another $470.1 million in revenue and $136.2 million in earnings and seigniorage.”

It’s unknown what Swartz had hoped to do with the information if and when he received the types of records he was requesting. Swartz’s request remains open, according to Muckrock, a transparency web site that streamlines the FOIA request process for journalists and the public and which Swartz used to request records.

Michael Morisy, the founder of Muckrock, who met Swartz in 2010 after Morisy launched the site, told Truthout they spoke regularly about a number of Swartz’s FOIA requests “but not that one in particular.”

Perhaps the boy genius who founded a software company that merged with the popular social networking web site Reddit was hoping to come up with a solution to the country’s financial woes and use the statistics in the government report to show why an idea to mint a platinum trillion-dollar coin as a means of dealing with the federal debt ceiling could be even bigger than the 50 State Quarters Program. In one of his last tweets before he took his own life Friday, he urged his followers to “save the country” and “sign the platinum coin petition.”

The idea was ultimately shot down on Saturday.

A day earlier, Swartz hanged himself with his belt in his Brooklyn, New York home. He was 26. He had battled depression and in years past had publicly written about thoughts of suicide. He did not leave a suicide note, according to police.

While his supporters, family and friends continue attempt to come to grips with the tragic loss of such a gifted computer programmer, who at 14, developed an early version of Really Simple Syndication, or RSS, which allowed blogs and news web sites to easily share their content, a peek at the FOIA requests Swartz filed over the past two years sheds a little light on what he had been grappling with personally and professionally.

Although a majority of his FOIA requests were self-serving it is also clear that the information he sought, particularly in areas pertaining to government surveillance, would have greatly benefited the public. However, his efforts to pry loose materials from a highly secretive administration were mostly unsuccessful.

On the Government’s Radar

Swartz filed his first FOIA request using Muckrock’s service in December 2010, more than two years after he landed on the government’s radar. He was seeking information about himself. 

In 2008, Swartz’s friend and fellow open government activist Carl Malamud, the founder of the nonprofit public.resource.org, wanted to make federal court documents housed on the Public Access to Court Electronic Records system (PACER) available to the public for free. Using $600,000 he raised from supporters, Malamud purchased 50 years worth of appellate court documents and posted them on his website.

Then, the government started a pilot program in which access to federal court documents on PACER would be made available to users at no cost at 17 libraries around the country. Malamud urged activists like Swartz to visit the libraries, download the documents and send it over to him so he could make it availble to the public via his website. 

“So Aaron went to one of them and installed a small PERL script he had written that cycled sequentially through case numbers, requesting a new document from Pacer every three seconds, and uploading it to” Amazon’s Elastic Compute (EC2) Cloud server, Wired reported. “Aaron pulled nearly 20 million pages of public court documents, which are now available for free on the Internet Archive.” 

The court documents Swartz legally accessed were worth $1.5 million. The government shut down the PACER pilot program and the FBI launched an investigtation

On December 10, 2010, Swartz filed a FOIA request with the Justice Department’s Criminal Division seeking “documents related to me, Aaron Swartz, as well as any documents related to any associated PACER investigation.” The government responded by stating it could not locate any responsive records.

The same day he filed a FOIA request with the Justice Department he also filed one with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) seeking “All clinical trial information, including the medical and statistical reviews of New Drug Applications.” The FDA said his request was too broad. Swartz narrowed it and asked for “the list or log that includes all names of drugs which the FDA has already processed and prepared for public release all the submitted medical and statistical new drug reviews. [sic]” The FDA told Swartz he could find that information on the agency’s website. It’s unknown why Swartz was so interested in the data.

Two years ago, Swartz was indicted on federal wire and computer fraud charges for allegedly downloading illegally more than 4 million journal articles and documents from JSTOR, an electronic database of journal articles, by entering a wiring closet in the basement of a research building at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), connecting a laptop to the university’s network and uploading the articles to Amazon’s cloud server. Swartz later returned to retrieve the computer, according to federal court documents.

This time the government aggressively pursued Swartz, even after he turned over hard drives containing the articles and JSTOR said it was not interested in pursuing the matter further. His trial was due to start in April. He faced $1 million in fines and decades in prison if convicted.

In March 2011, about two months after he was arrested by MIT and Cambridge, Massachusetts, police and a Secret Service agent and four months prior to his indictment, Swartz filed a FOIA request with the Justice Department, which appeared to be related to his PACER case, seeking:

Any records requests made to Amazon and any responses from Amazon in connection with any such requests. This includes subpoenas, warrants, 2703 orders, National Security Letters, etc.

In addition, I request any guidelines, policies, advice, or procedures related to using data stored by Amazon for investigations, data-collection, and surveillance. For example, any guides or advice to law enforcement akin to the “AOL Inc. Law Enforcement Manual” or “Facebook Law Enforcement Guidelines” would be included by this request.

In particular, I request the response from Amazon to a Grand Jury subpoena as included in an email from Eric Wenger dated Nov 4, 2008 and labeled “Amazon_GJS_Response.pdf”. Since it pertains to me, I request this information under the Privacy Act as well as the Freedom of Information Act.

A week before he filed his FOIA, Swartz exchanged emails with Christopher Soghoian, a security and privacy researcher at the American Civil Liberties Union, asking him to provide feedback about a blog post he was considering publishing: “Is the Government Snooping On Your EC2 Instance?” While Swartz’s post raised a number of important privacy and security questions, he was clearly concerned about how the government was obtaining information about him without his knowledge.

When I heard that the government had [ordered Twitter to turn over data about its users], I got real interested in the legal techniques for getting people’s private data,” Swartz wrote. “I’ve spent the past few months talking to lawyers, policy experts, and executives at online service providers about how the rules work and what protections they afford. What I’ve found is that ­­- incredibly -­­ anyone who’s filed a lawsuit can order online service providers to turn over just about anything.” In a message on the same email string, Soghoian questioned the accuracy of Swartz’s finding that “anyone” could obtain such information, citing a provision in the Electronic Communications Privacy Act that prohibits disclosure of content to anyone but the government. (And the government doesn’t even need to file a lawsuit.) But most major online service providers warn you before they hand over your data and give you a chance to challenge the order in court. Google, Yahoo, and Twitter all send their users emails with a copy of the request and instructions on how to challenge it.

What are Amazon’s policies? I’ve had several conversations with them about this, but they refuse to comment on the record. Still, I’m in the rare position of getting to experience them first­hand. A couple years ago the government sent Amazon a subpoena for information about an EC2 instance I’d purchased. Amazon handed it over without stopping to warn me. When I asked them about it specifically, they refused to comment. When I asked them about their general policy, they refused to comment. The only reason I found out about it was because I filed a FOIA request with the Department of Justice. The DOJ was more transparent about this than Amazon.

As best as I can tell, this is Amazon’s policy: When the government asks, turn stuff over. Never tell the people affected. Don’t give them a chance to object.

In his email to Soghoian, Swartz said he could not publish the article under his name “for personal reasons.” He did not elaborate. Swartz’s attorney did not return calls from Truthout seeking comment. Soghoian also did not respond to email requests for comment.

A week after his email exchange with Soghoian, Swartz filed a FOIA request with the FBI and Justice Department seeking records from the FBI and records related to a “raid” of Soghoian’s Indiana home in 2006.

According to Muckrock, Swartz did not receive any documents pertaining to Soghoian at the time of his death.

Why the government was so determined to punish Swartz is a mystery. The Huffington Post reported that Swartz’s attorney, Elliot Peters, said that the assistant US attorney in Massachusetts prosecuting the case, Stephen Heymann, was looking for “some juicy computer crime cases and Aaron’s case, sadly for Aaron, fit the bill.” Peters believes Heymann thought he “was going to receive press and he was going to be a tough guy and read his name in the newspaper.”

Over the weekend, Swartz’s family issued a statement and said Swartz’s death “is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.”

Rankled By ICE Domain Name Seizures

Morisy, the Muckrock founder, said Swartz was particularly disturbed by actions on the part of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that led to the seizure of dozens of Internet domain names. He filed a FOIA in December 2010 with the agency in hopes of prying loose documents about its actions.

“That really bothered him,” Morisy said about the domain name seizures. “He felt it was politicized. He was just really upset that the government could come in and do this.”

ICE turned over to Swartz last October about 100 pages of heavily redacted documents. But the materials do not help explain the government’s actions.

Morisy said he was working on an appeal for Swartz to send to ICE, a draft of which was ready at the time of his death last week. He added that Swartz expressed some interest in working with advocacy organizations, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), to “raise awareness about these issues and effect change.”

“It wasn’t just a curiosity for him,” Morisy said about Swartz’s FOIA requests. “He wanted to see something done differently.”

Free Speech Advocate

Swartz also sought government records related to Pfc. Bradley Manning, the intelligence analyst accused of leaking hundreds of thousands of State Department cables and other documents to WikiLeaks. Specifically, Swartz’s December 27, 2010 FOIA request asked the Marine Corps to “please process as quickly as possible a request for the government-curated audio tapes created in Quantico brig visitation room #2 on December 18 and December 19 2010 from 1:00pm — 3:00pm.

“These tapes may also contain a recording of David M. House; I have permission from David House under the Privacy Act to request these records,” Swartz wrote. He filed the same request with the Army Criminal Investigative Service on February 9, 2011.

House is a founding member of the Bradley Manning Support Network who helped raise awareness about the conditions of Manning’s detention, which a military judge recently ruled was illegal. In June 2011, House was subpoeaned to appear before a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia, which is reportedly investigating Wikileaks and associations a group of Boston-area hackers may have had with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and/or Manning. 

House declined to comment on the record about Swartz’s FOIA. 

Morisy said Swartz “was very interested in due process and the freedom of speech issues.” That certainly appeared to be  the common thread in all of his FOIA requests. 

But it was also deeply personal for Swartz.

Indeed, one of his FOIA requests sought from the United States Secret Service, “Any records on the procedures the Secret Service uses for reading encrypted hard disks.” Swartz, who filed the records request on February 28, 2011, was still waiting for the Secret Service to produce responsive records at the time of his death. 

In a blog post published Monday, investigative blogger Marcy Wheeler reported that two days before Swartz was arrested in January 2011, the Secret Service took over the investigation.

On Monday, in what is considered standard procedure when the defendant in a case has died, the Justice Department announced that it had dropped its criminal case against Swartz.