How the FBI tracked Aaron Swartz

FOIA'd files reveal how federal agents watched Swartz's online activity, noting even banal details

Topics: pacer, FBI, Aaron Swartz, FOIA, cybercrime, ,

Firedoglake’s Daniel Wright has published once classified files on the FBI’s tracking of Aaron Swartz, the online activist who committed suicide last month facing hefty federal charges.

The FOIA’d files, which became unclassified following the 26-year-old technologist’s death, tell how the FBI began watching Swartz once he was suspected of downloading millions of records from the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) database — a different case from the Justice Department’s pursuit of Swartz over downloading academic articles from JSTOR.

“I remembered a macabre fact,” wrote Wright on obtaining the FBI file, “upon death every American’s FBI file becomes unclassified with certain exceptions.” The blogger added that “overall the files tell you more about the FBI than they do Swartz,” noting how the FBI highlighted a host of Swartz’s banal online activity:

They collected information from Linked In, followed his blog posts, and even thought his membership in the “Long-term Planning Committee for the Human Race” was worthy of note. There is also a Kafkaesque entry concerning Swartz’s blog post NYT Personals which includes the question “Want to have the F.B.I. open up a file on you as well?” – which I read for the first time in Swartz’s FBI file.

Swartz’s quip on NYT Personals alluded to the fact that he knew he was being investigated for downloading PACER files — he’d even FOIA’d his own FBI file.



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The FBI file advises agents to locate any of Swartz’s vehicles and personal information on his driver’s license. Agents surveyed his home address in Illinois but were ordered not to approach the activist while he was the subject of investigation. The PACER investigation against Swartz was dropped — although he had downloaded millions of files, it was determined he had committed no crimes in doing so. As HuffPo noted, “Swartz downloaded public court documents from the PACER system in an effort to make them available outside of the expensive service. The move drew the attention of the FBI, which ultimately decided not to press charges as the documents, were, in fact, public.” The Justice Department did not, however, decide similarly over Swartz’s downloading nearly 5 million academic articles from JSTOR.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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