Surveillance footage that busted Aaron Swartz released

The video from an MIT wiring closet prompted the federal probe that led to the technologist's demise

Published December 4, 2013 2:12PM (EST)

Aaron Swartz              (Wikipedia)
Aaron Swartz (Wikipedia)

Aaron Swartz, the young technologist who committed suicide while facing hefty federal charges for downloading millions of academic articles from JSTOR, was undone through surveillance footage.

A video that caught Swartz with a hard drive in an MIT wiring closet -- from where he accessed the vast article trove -- prompted a federal probe, which eventually led to the open-data activist facing charges under the dangerously broad Computer Fraud and Abuses Act (despite the fact that the purported victim, JSTOR, did not want to bring charges).

Wired's Kevin Poulsen reported on Thursday that he has obtained the footage via FOIA (it can be viewed here on Wired's site). In the brief but fateful video, Swartz is seen entering the wiring closet, removing a small hard drive from his backpack, kneeling down out of shot and then hurriedly leaving a few minutes later. As Poulsen notes:

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...

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.

By 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

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