Did the MIT Police Stake Out Aaron Swartz’ Home on January 6, 2011?

One of the details I’ve been puzzled by in the Aaron Swartz story is how MIT Police Captain Albert Pierce happened to locate Aaron on January 6, 2011. After all, Aaron was filmed in the circuit closet at 12:32 PM, but left by 12:34. He went from there to MIT’s Student Center, where he plugged his computer in again. MIT must have lost track of him, because they didn’t find his computer until 3PM, and they found it by looking for the computer ID, not by tracking Aaron’s path. Aaron wasn’t found until 2:11, when Pierce saw him riding his bike down Massachusetts Avenue.

What are the chances, I’ve been wondering, that this Captain–possibly in the company of Secret Service Agent Michael Pickett (the NYT seems to suggest they were together; the arrest report suggests Pickett got called in)–found Aaron just riding down Mass Ave?.

I think Saul has provided the answer.

The map above shows the location of the two MIT buildings (in the lower right) and where Aaron was arrested on Lee Street (Saul did a more complete map here, also showing the Secret Service office). The fourth dot shows where Aaron lived at the time: 950 Mass Ave.

In other words, Pierce just happened to be less than two blocks away from Aaron’s home when he spotted him.

That would solve one mystery, but raises another one: how did they ID Aaron?

Though that one is pretty easy to solve, too. After all, when the CPD and Secret Service first checked the laptop on January 4, they fingerprinted the computer. In addition, they had pictures from Swartz’ entry that day.

It would have been very easy to find a picture of Aaron. I’m more curious whether authorities had his fingerprint on file, though. I guess we’ll learn that when his full FBI file gets liberated.

In any case, if Pierce was, in fact, staking out Aaron’s house (what is the MIT cops’ authority to do that, anyway?), then it would suggest they knew exactly who he was before they arrested him.

Update: The affidavit used to get a warrant for Aaron’s USB made this claim.

An MIT police officer who had seen several pictures taken by the covert camera in Building 16’s network wiring closet saw Aaron Swartz on a bicycle near MIT, approximately half an hour after the “ghost laptop” had been connected in Building W20.

Yep, that’s a load of half-truth.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

29 replies
  1. JTMinIA says:

    Like the police for most universities in cities (see, e.g., http://www2.cambridgema.gov/cityClerk/CommitteeReport.cfm?action=search&instance_id=681 ), the MIT Police have “full police powers” on land that is owned or controlled (e.g., rented or leased) by MIT. (It was the same way at Hopkins when I was a traffic cop in Baltimore.) So now you have to figure out if Aaron was renting from MIT or someone else, or whether there was any MIT-controlled buildings nearby.

  2. emptywheel says:

    @JTMinIA: Nah, he was a mile down the road (and remember, he was associated w/Harvard, not MIT). But as Saul said in the other post, they are deputized in the area.

    In any case, the CPD arrested him, w/assist from the Secret Service.

  3. Ben Franklin says:

    Am I missing something? Was it the close proximity of SS which prompted their involvement? Why would MIT contact them rather than FBI? As for his ID, mayhaps facial recognition software, rather than Pierce seeing him on his bicycle? It’s a shame we have to find everything so suspicious, but there it is.

  4. Awaiting Moderation says:

    Aaron Swartz. Notice the Orwellian campaign against him? He’s now a hacker. The only thing he did was change MAC addresses, which pretty much no one informed would call a hack. I could probably figure out how to do that in 5 minutes on Google, I’ve just never bothered. But since they can’t call him a criminal, they’ll make him a criminal equivalent.

    What Is a ‘Hacktivist’? New York Times

    How MIT Ensnared a Hacker, Bucking a Freewheeling Culture New York Times

    Oh, and to add insult to injury, JSTOR is depicted as “owning” the articles that Swartz copies. Bullshit. The copyrights were held by the publisher and the authors if they were smart retained a copyright interest too. JSTOR would be a licensee.

    (via http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2013/01/links-12113.html)

  5. Your Papers, Please says:


    Kim Dotcom: the internet cult hero spoiling for a fight with USA authorities

    German-born former hacker says his eyes have been opened to USA tactics after his Megaupload site was shut down last year

    On Sunday, almost a year after the internet entrepreneur and several of his associates were arrested in a spectacular dawn raid on the mansion, about 200 invited guests will gather at the opulent estate for the launch of Mega. The new cyberlocker service is a simplified, super-encrypted successor to Megaupload, the file-sharing site that once reputedly accounted for 4% of all internet traffic, and which USA prosecutors had taken offline moments before the helicopters descended in New Zealand a year ago.

    After spending almost a month in prison in early 2012, Dotcom and his co-accused were awarded bail – the first of a series of court victories that have left the prosecution case looking increasingly wobbly. With any hearing for extradition to the US to face criminal copyright charges having been pushed back, it is hard not to see the extravagant unveiling of the new site as a two-finger gesture aimed at US authorities.


  6. Saul Tannenbaum says:

    In my role of suggesting plausible alternatives, it’s possible that the MIT network admins recognized Aaron. And if they didn’t know him, they certainly knew someone who knew him. It also wouldn’t surprise me to discover that, after they get pictures of a young man entering the wiring closet, someone at MIT reached out through the grapevine that all institutions have to see if anyone recognized the picture and/or to warn folks that, if he’s one of yours – say, a grad student in some research group – he’s in for a world of hurt.

  7. Saul Tannenbaum says:

    @Ben Franklin: It remains unclear who called the Secret Service. One news report suggests it was the Cambridge Police, not MIT.

    In any event, it’s the Secret Service that runs the New England Electronic Crimes Task Force. And, the Boston US Attorney’s office/FBI relationship has been strained as they’ve been busy prosecuting FBI informant/crime boss Whitey Bulger, as well as a number of FBI agents who conspired with him.

  8. jo6pac says:

    @Saul Tannenbaum: Oh, yes software that recognized his face and I wonder what govt. agency has some of the best? My tin foil hat is leaking and mother land security sounds about right.

  9. pdaly says:

    @Saul Tannenbaum:

    Saul, your link to the Cambridge Police report of Swartz’s 1/6/2011 arrest in front of 24 Lee St Cambridge, MA

    is interesting not only for locating where the MIT police officer spotted Swartz– 8 or more blocks off campus.

    Notice the Cambridge police report filing date is 1/13/11, a week after the 1/06/11 arrest.
    Also notice the Cambridge officer mistakenly uses the year “2010” instead of “2011” THROUGHOUT his report.
    The computer time stamp gets the year 2011 correct, however.

    The USSS would later argue they had just nabbed the ‘hacker who had stolen $1 million worth of academic articles’, so you might think getting the report filed in a timely manner would be top priority. Why wait a week?

    The year confusion 2010 by the Cambridge officer writing the report is a common mistake for lots of people at the beginning of a new year, but you would think for such an “important” police collar, that someone (the USSS ?) would have noticed the mistake and asked the Cambridge officer to fix it.

    The way it reads to me, perhaps the USSS asked Cambridge police to hold off on filing papers until it had its way with Swartz. Maybe he lawyered up. Then the Cambridge police report was dashed off only after the USSS figured out what it could get from Swartz. Because the USSS’s next step was already determined, no one bothered to proof read the Cambridge officer’s filing closely.

    Emptywheel previously wrote about the strangely quiet post-arrest period from 1/7/11 to 2/9/11.

    Emptywheel also mentions in that above post that the USSS filed (on 2/9/11) an affidavit which claims Aaron Swartz on January 10, 2011 “broadcast a message via Twitter for Mac.”
    The Cambridge PD arrest report is filed 3 days later, 1/13/11.

    Maybe coincidence. Maybe not.

  10. pdaly says:

    I don’t use Twitter, but I think it means using a Mac computer to send Twitter message.

    From what I recall, the Feds never clarified whether or not they located the Mac used to send the tweet.

  11. pdaly says:

    I wonder whether 47 year old MIT Professor Robert Tappan Morris has already or is willing to weigh in on the Feds’ treatment of Swartz.


    Harvard and Cornell educated Morris was the first person to be indicted (1989) of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 for releasing a worm (ironically from MIT while a grad student at Cornell) which caused computer system disruption across the country.

    He was sentenced to 3 years probation, paid a $10K fine and performed 400 hours community service.

    Morris subsequently became a partner in the company Y Combinator which helped the company Reddit which then merged with Aaron Swartz’s company Infogami.
    And as mentioned above, today Morris is an MIT professor.

  12. emptywheel says:

    @joanneleon: They were using it to prove that Aaron might have a Mac at his house. They were looking for the Mac that had been involved in the JSTOR downloads for a period in October 2010.

  13. Saul Tannenbaum says:

    @pdaly: One theory of the delay is that this wasn’t really a high priority. They caught a kid downloading academic papers, so what? Who’s in a hurry to file an arrest report for that? Plus, it’s complicated to gather all that background, when you (the Cambridge Police Dept) is only called in at the penultimate moment.

    This loosely aligns with Marcy’s notion that this all really didn’t matter until the WikiLeaks investigation hit a dead end and the Secret Service got interested in serving warrants.

    I can’t find any contemparaneous reports of Swartz’s arrest, though I’m not completely done looking. I didn’t write about it until July when his federal indictment became known, and hit the media, largely from a routine press release from Carmen Ortiz’s office.

    Oh, and Swartz almost certainly lawyered up. He’d been investigated for his Pacer downloads and was represented by counsel during that.

  14. emptywheel says:

    @Saul Tannenbaum: Yeah, I’ve asked some friends of Aaron’s and they didn’t know about that earlier arrest either.

    As to lawyering up, Good–the first lawyer he had in this case–is the same guy involved in his PACER response. I’m also pretty sure that when Lessig says he can’t say much, he’s referring to conversations between him and Aaron covered by Attorney-Client.

  15. pdaly says:

    @Saul Tannenbaum:
    “One theory of the delay is that this wasn’t really a high priority.”

    That’s my thought, too. But the USSS performed the arrest, so perhaps the USSS had better, bigger plans in which to involve Swartz –in exchange for keeping his arrest off the books? Then I imagine Swartz said, “No.”

    Then after the fact, the arrest was part and parcel of an important manhunt, ‘because JSTOR was being hacked and MIT outsmarted by an unknown trespasser.’

  16. public_servant_watch says:

    Was MIT perhaps bowing to a corrupt criminal justice system and corrupt federal court system? Aaron’s legal download of court records from PACER initiated a watch and government harassment. Further, and again, there was no hacking! There was no stealing! There was abuse of power and purposeful misinterpretation/stretching of the laws with a goal to eventually ban Aaron from computers. The only criminals in this instant matter are the ones being supported by the tax payer who have decided that they and they alone are exempt from the laws of this nation. BTW your corrupt legal community and corrupt federal court system make Bernie Madoff look like a piker. Pretense litigation with civil suits and malicious prosecutions in criminal matters to pad attorneys pockets and the pockets of corrupt public servants is routine! Why has Carmen Ortiz and the FBI/DOJ not taken action with documented proof that public servants use computers paid for by the tax payer to run pretense litigation and that their little capers include the identity theft of Circuit and US District Judges along with fraudulent docket entries and the rendering of bogus opinions and judgments to obstruct justice. Gee if Aaron had been able to continue his efforts on getting ALL court records free to the public the ruses in these courts would be evident and the game would be over. WHY did CARMEN ORTIZ AND MIT go after the one person that could expose alleged criminals that she had no intention of prosecuting. Nothing from our courts or any government agency can be trusted. Never in the history of this country have we needed at the current critical level actual OPEN GOVERNMENT and utilization of the FOIA. Aaron Swartz was a thorn in the side of a corrupt government and a VERY CORRUPT FEDERAL COURT SYSTEM!!! Harassment over the PACER incident simply led Aaron to pursue another form of information release where as an academic he knew common sense would prevail because who in their right mind was going to object to EDUCATION? Well apparently alleged criminals objected because they now had a way to bar Aaron from computers. Carmen Ortiz do your damn job and go after real criminals? [“Decency, security and liberty alike demand that government officials shall be subjected to the rules of conduct that are commands to the citizen. In a government of laws, existence of the government will be imperiled if it fails to observe the law scrupulously. Our government is the potent, omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for the law, it invites every man to come a law unto himself. It invites anarchy.” (United States v. Olmstead, 277 U.S. 438 (1928). Justice Louis Brandeis] http://www.scribd.com/tired_of_corruption

  17. pdaly says:

    Is it possible the USSS submitted their own, secret arrest document?

    The Cambridge police report would be for public consumption?

  18. lysias says:

    Swartz’s address was much closer to Harvard than to MIT, and, at least when I was a graduate student at Harvard in the 1970’s, was populated much more by Harvard people than by MIT people. I very much doubt that MIT would have owned any buildings in the vicinity.

  19. pdaly says:

    Agree with you. Saul in an earlier thread suggested, however, that MIT police have been deputized to operate in Cambridge in the vicinity of the MIT campus.

    We are not sure how far that would extend, as 950 Mass Ave is more than 8 blocks west of the MIT Museum (which seems to be at the outer limit of MIT’s campus going west on Mass Ave).

  20. pdaly says:

    Look at the 2/24/11 affidavit by Secret Service Special Agent Michael Pickett for the USB drive, (this starts on page 12 of the 30 page file document in the link below)


    What do you make of his footnote 5 on page 7 (look for page 18 within the 30 page document to find Affidavit “page 7”):

    “I mistakenly stated in my February 9th Affidavit that Swartz dropped his backpack to the ground before fleeing from police. He kept it with him when he fled.”

    How does one make such a mistake? Is it an innocent mistake?
    Does covering both scenarios help or hurt the prosecution?

  21. Sleeper says:

    Oh please folks.

    Swartz was almost certainly tracked via cell phone most cell phones now include GPS and it is possible to removely activate and track the phones.

    The involvement of the Servret Service is unusual.

    I’m guessing that the deal presented to Swartz included a demand for a bsck door to Wkileaks.

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