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Secret Service ordered to release files on Aaron Swartz

Published time: July 09, 2013 21:30
Edited time: December 24, 2013 12:31
Aaron Swartz poses in a Borderland Books in San Francisco on February 4, 2008. (Reuters / Noah Berger)

Aaron Swartz poses in a Borderland Books in San Francisco on February 4, 2008. (Reuters / Noah Berger)

The federal dossier on Aaron Swartz will be made public due to a United States District judge’s decision last week which compels the Secret Service to disclose the contents of its investigation into the late computer prodigy.

US District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ruled on Friday that the Secret Service must start sharing the intelligence it collected on Swartz during the federal probe it wrapped up earlier this year after the well-known coder and activist committed suicide. The Secret Service was the main agency pursuing Swartz before he was indicted on violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act in 2011 for unlawfully downloading a trove of academic articles. He hung himself in a New York City apartment in January while awaiting trial.

Kevin Poulsen, a journalist for Wired, filed a Freedom of Information Act shortly after Swartz’s death asking for the tome of data that investigators accumulated during their pursuit.

But Poulsen wrote that while the criminal case against Swartz was formally dismissed upon his death, in February the Secret Service denied the FOIA request by citing an exemption covering sensitive law enforcement records that remain integral in ongoing investigations. That prompted Poulsen to file a lawsuit with the help of Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney David Sobel against the Secret Service’s parent agency, the US Department of Homeland Security, which even still neglected to generate a response — until now.

On Friday, Judge Kollar-Kotelly wrote, “Defendant shall promptly release to Plaintiff all responsive documents that it has gathered thus far and shall continue to produce additional responsive documents that it locates on a rolling basis.”

With that ruling, the DHS is being told to act fast. That pressure couldn’t have come at a better time too, added Poulsen, as just days earlier a Justice Department attorney wrote him to say they’ve discovered “several thousand additional pages” on Swartz and would need additional time to review them before release.

Kollar-Kotelly’s has given the government until August 5 to answer Poulsen’s lawsuit and provide a timetable detailing the projected release of documents pertaining to the Swartz probe, but in the interim the DHS must start sending over documents that they’ve already processed. Meanwhile, Poulsen wrote that he will publish documents obtained through his FOIA request on Wired.com as they become available.

Before Swartz’s death earlier this year at age 27, he worked alongside Poulsen in the Strongbox project unveiled in May by the New Yorker. When the project was debuted, Poulsen described it as an “open-source, anonymous inbox” that would provide “a slightly safer way for journalists and their anonymous sources to communicate” over the Internet. The Strongbox project has since become all the more relevant since National Security Agency leaked Edward Snowden exposed massive surveillance programs operated by the US government only weeks later, which oddly enough isn’t the only strange coincidence at play: during the administration of President George W. Bush, Judge Kollar-Kotelly presided over the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and issued a ruling in 2004 which allows the NSA to collect the metadata of Americans’ online communications in 2004. Then in 2006, Judge Kollar-Kotelly signed another order in secrecy approving the bulk collection of phone metadata — Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act.

Snowden’s revelations about these programs as seen in recent leaks published in the Guardian, Washington Post and other outlets have since caused an international scandal that has left the former NSA contractor seeking asylum to avoid felony charges in the US.