Anyone who is, or is thinking of becoming, a prosecutor ought to read Life Inside the Aaron Swartz Investigation for Quinn Norton’s account of what it feels like to be a witness in a prosecution, including in a grand jury proceeding. I doubt that much of it, especially the run up to the grand jury, was an unusual experience, which will make it all the more instructive to participants in the legal system.
I haven’t written about the Aaron Swartz story because I don’t have much to say that hasn’t been said well and often elsewhere. What’s publicly available does suggest that prosecutors took a surprisingly tough line with Aaron Swartz (whom I believe I only met once, briefly, but who left a comment here once). This tough approach is consistent with an attitude I think is common to a lot of law enforcement and, sadly, judges, in that they see “hackers” as evil creatures akin to Tim May‘s ‘four horsemen of the Infocalypse‘.
I’m not, by the way, a fan of the ordinary grand jury, which I think has strayed far beyond what it was and should have been, and has become a too-pliant tool of the prosecution. Interestingly, Florida does it better: as well as using local grand juries to hand down first degree murder indictments, statewide grand juries here investigate social problems and come up with frequently sensible reports and recommendations often aimed at spurring legislation or administrative reform.
And it’s more than clear that we need to reform the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, along the lines of the “Aaron’s Law” proposal making the rounds.
All that said, and assuming the most noble of motives on Aaron Swartz’s behalf, it also seems to be the case that breaking into a server closet at MIT and inserting a machine there that availed itself of the data stream isn’t nice and wasn’t legal. There was at least petty crime, and perhaps more depending how one valued the data acquired. What is at issue to me regarding the feds (as opposed to, say, MIT) is not so much the fact of a prosecution but rather the means used to go about it. Then again, I suspect these means were standard operating procedure, which is the real issue.
(Spotted via Cory Doctorow, Inside the prosecution of Aaron Swartz.)