In Epstein’s Wake: MIT Media Lab, Dirty Money, and Swartz [UPDATE]

[NB: This is definitely not by Marcy; contains some speculative content. Update at bottom. /~Rayne]

MIT Media Lab is in upheaval after the disclosure that its organization accepted financial support from now-deceased pedophile Jeffrey Epstein.

Ethan Zuckerman announced Tuesday he was moving his work out of the MIT Media Lab by the end of May 2020. He’s been a highly-respected director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, a subset of the Media Lab. Zuckerman explained his decision in a post on Medium:

… My logic was simple: the work my group does focuses on social justice and on the inclusion of marginalized individuals and points of view. It’s hard to do that work with a straight face in a place that violated its own values so clearly in working with Epstein and in disguising that relationship. …

His moral and ethical clarity deserves applause; Zuckerman stands out against the highly compromised tech sector, in both academia and the private sector.

While his announcement was as upbeat as it could possibly be considering the circumstances, a faint sense of betrayal leaks through. It must have been painful to learn one’s boss has undermined their work so badly they have no choice but to leave, even if one enjoys their workplace and their boss.

Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, offered his apology for his having accepted funding from Epstein through organizations Epstein controlled.

The explanation in Ito’s statement and his apology sound banal and will likely be accepted by the wider technology community given how little reaction there’s been from Silicon Valley.

One glaring problem: Ito is an lawyer, a visiting professor at Harvard. There’s little defense he can offer for taking  dirty money from a convicted human trafficker. It matters not if the money was ‘laundered’ through funds if they were under Epstein’s control. The money mattered more than the appearance, more than Media Lab’s ethics.

Ito still has considerable explaining to do. It won’t be enough fast enough to stem the tide, though.

J. Nathan Mathias, visiting scholar working on the CivilServant project at the Lab, has also announced he is leaving:

As part of our work, CivilServant does research on protecting women and other vulnerable people online from abuse and harassment. I cannot with integrity do that from a place with the kind of relationship that the Media Lab has had with Epstein. It’s that simple.

Epstein’s money didn’t directly fund CivilServant yet any of his dirty money funded the Media Lab it supported the infrastructure for CivilServant.

There will be more departures. Worse, there will be people who can’t leave, trapped by circumstance. Epstein’s poisonous reach continues beyond the grave.

~ ~ ~

When I read that Zuckerman was leaving MIT Media Lab, it occurred to me there was a possible intersection between MIT, law enforcement, and another activist who lived their values defending the public’s interest.

Aaron Swartz.

The government was ridiculously ham fisted in its prosecution of Swartz for downloading material from MIT for the purpose of liberating taxpayer-funded information. The excessive prosecution is believed to have pushed Swartz to commit suicide.

What could possibly have driven the federal government to react so intensely to Swartz’s efforts? One might even say the prosecution was in diametric intensity to the prosecution of Jeffrey Epstein a few years earlier.

Why was Swartz hammered by the feds for attempting to release publicly-funded material while Epstein got a slap on the hands — besides the obvious fact women and girls are not valued in this society as much as information is?

At the time I wondered whether it was research materials that might pose a threat to the existing stranglehold of fossil fuel industries. There was certainly enough money in that.

But in retrospect, seeing how Epstein made a concerted effort to inveigle himself into science and technology by way of investment, noting that researchers were among the compromised serviced by Epstein’s underage sex slaves, was it really research that Epstein tried to access?

What might be the overlap between Epstein’s outreach and the DOJ with regard to MIT and to Swartz’s activism?

Is it possible that something else besides scientific research might have interested both Epstein and the federal government, incurring the wrath of the latter?

I can’t help but wonder if Swartz’s work to liberate federal court archive Public Access to Electronic Court Records (PACER) documents might have been that something else.

In 2008, Carl Malamud of worked with Swartz, receiving what PACER documents had been downloaded from behind PACER’s pricey paywall.

Upon reading the downloaded content they found court documents rife with privacy violations, including

“names of minor children, names of informants, medical records, mental health records, financial records, tens of thousands of social security numbers.”

Malamud said they contacted

“Chief Judges of 31 District Courts … They redacted those documents and they yelled at the lawyers that filed them … The Judicial Conference changed their privacy rules. … [To] the bureaucrats who ran the Administrative Office of the United States Courts … we were thieves that took $1.6 million of their property. So they called the FBI … [The FBI] found nothing wrong …”

Was the harassment-by-excessive-prosecution intended to stop Swartz and Malamud from exposing any more confidential information exposed in federal prosecutions, shielded from the public by nothing more than a cost-prohibitive per page charge of eight cents?

Would politically-toxic sweetheart deals like the DOJ offered Epstein have been among those with privacy violations and poorly-/non-redacted confidential information?

Or given Epstein’s long relationship with senior members of MIT Media Lab, was Swartz cutting into someone’s turf by liberating data which might otherwise be salable — legally or illegally — if closely held?

~ ~ ~

Putting aside speculation, several things need to be dealt with immediately to remedy the mess post-Epstein.

First, all entities receiving public funding which also received contributions from Epstein-controlled funds must make full disclosure — ditto nonprofits which operate as 501(c)3 entities paying no taxes, like Epstein’s shady Gratitude America, Ltd. Who in each organization was approached, when, how did Epstein communicate his interest in funding their work, how were contributions made, and did any persons affiliated with the entities travel with, to/from an Epstein-controlled venue or Epstein-funded event? Everything these entities do is suspect until they are fully transparent.

It would be in the best interest of affected entities to make disclosures immediately; the court-ordered release of sealed documents from Virginia Giuffre’s defamation lawsuit against Epstein’s alleged procurer Ghislaine Maxwell is not yet complete. Only a portion has been published; failing to make disclosures ahead of the release has not helped Media Lab’s credibility. Nor has this:

MIT declined to comment on the money it received. “While donors, including foundations, may confirm their contributions to the Institute, MIT does not typically comment on the details of gifts or gift agreements,” MIT spokesperson Kimberly Allen told BuzzFeed News by email.

Second, in the case of MIT Media Labs in particular, a  complete narrative history and timeline of the Lab’s origin, work, and funding since it was launched is necessary. There isn’t one that I can find right now — not at the organization’s website, not even on Wikipedia. This lack of transparency is wretched hypocrisy considering the grief members of the Lab expressed upon Swartz’s death. Media Lab’s site Search feature offering content by range or years is inadequate and must be supplemented.

It’s not clear based on publicly available information what Marvin Minsky‘s exact role was and when with the Lab though he is referred to as a founder. Minsky, who died in 2016, is among those Virginia Giuffre has accused of sexual abuse. What effect including financial contributions did Epstein have on MIT Media Lab through his relationship with Minsky?

As Evgeny Morozov found when combing through papers, Epstein’s money could have been present as early as the Lab’s inception. Why can’t the public see this history readily, let alone the researchers, staff, students working in the Media Lab?

Even the work MIT Media Lab encompasses is not shared openly with the public. Mathias’ project CivilServant isn’t listed under Research — it can only be found through the Lab’s Search feature. How can the public learn what may have been shaped by Epstein’s funding if they can’t even see what the Lab is working on?

Third, Swartz’s work toward an Open Access Movement outlined in his Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto remains undone.

The effect of closed/limited access to publicly-funded information may be killing us and our planet. This can’t be stressed enough, based on one example from Malamud’s recollection:

… The last time Aaron had downloaded large numbers of journal articles was in 2008, when he downloaded 441,170 law review articles from Westlaw, a legal search service. He was trying to expose the practice of corporations such as Exxon funding a practice known as “for-litigation research,” which consisted of lucrative stipends given to law professors who in turn produced articles penned specifically so they could be cited in ongoing litigation. In the case of Exxon, they were trying to reduce their $5 billion in punitive damages from the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. Aaron didn’t release any of the articles he downloaded, but the research he did was published in 2010 in a seminal article in the Stanford Law Review that exposed these ethically questionable practices in the legal academy. …

If Exxon did this for the Valdez Oil Spill, have they also done this with regard to climate change-related documents since the late 1980s?

Why isn’t this kind of work protecting the public’s interest against the malign use of corruptly-controlled data one of the Lab’s research programs?

Open access, too, must apply to MIT Media Labs. It must be as transparent as Swartz would have wished it to be.

You have to wonder how different the course of technology would have been as well as history had open access been baked into publicly-funded research at MIT Media Lab from the beginning.

UPDATE — 9:00 AM EDT 23-AUG-2019 —

Keep an eye on Evgeny Morozov’s Twitter feed as he’s been sharing more material on MIT Media Lab and Jeffrey Epstein.

Like this thread in progress by Media Lab fellow Sarah Szalavitz, who had warned against taking Epstein’s money. Alan Dershowitz pops up in that thread.

Note also community member foggycoast’s comment in which they share quite a few resources to help flesh out MIT Media Lab’s early years as well as Aaron Swartz’s papers.

I’d like to hear from more women who worked at Media Lab because I’m sure they won’t be as blind to predatory behavior as men have been. But then this asks people with less social capital, including some potential victims, to do the work of exposing this hidden form of corruption.

MIT Releases Its Own Swartz Investigation After Stalling Release of Secret Service’s

MIT has just released its report on the university’s role in the investigation into Aaron Swartz.

Part of it explains how the Secret Service came to be involved in the investigation.

The MIT Police decided that the situation required expertise in computer crime and forensics, which they did not have. They therefore telephoned the Cambridge Police Department detective who is their normal contact for assistance with computer-related crime activity.19 The Cambridge detective they contacted was a member of the New England Electronic Crimes Task Force.20 When he received the call for assistance from the MIT Police, the detective was working at the Task Force field office in a federal building in Boston, together with other law enforcement officers whose agencies participate in the Task Force. He responded to the call, accompanied by two other Task Force members: a special agent21 of the U.S. Secret Service; and a detective from the Boston Police Department. They arrived at the Building 16 closet around 11:00 a.m.

We note that no one from MIT called the Secret Service. The MIT Police contacted the Cambridge detective by calling him on his individual cell phone. The special agent became involved because he accompanied the Cambridge detective. As a Task Force member, the detective would sometimes respond to calls alone, and sometimes respond in the company of other members of the Task Force. The MIT Police were aware that other members of the Task Force might accompany the detective, and that Task Force members included Secret Service agents.


During the morning’s activities in the basement closet, the special agent had asked for whatever electronic records MIT might have on the matter. As it is IS&T’s protocol to obtain approval from MIT’s Office of the General Counsel (OGC) before releasing information or materials to outside law enforcement agencies, IS&T contacted the OGC, which responded that it was appropriate to comply with the agent’s request in view of the fact that law enforcement was conducting an investigation into what was potentially ongoing criminal activity of unknown scope, and it did not appear to OGC that such information would disclose personally identifiable information.

The report also provides this far less convincing description of how an MIT cop just happened to see Swartz close to his home and the Secret Service Agent just happened to be present at the time.

At approximately 2:00 p.m. an MIT Police officer was driving to the Stata garage after his shift in an unmarked police cruiser. He was familiar with the investigation and had been informed by radio that the laptop had been removed from the basement closet. He had seen the January 4 video of the suspect, as well as stills made from the video, and he had a still with him in his cruiser. On Vassar Street, near Massachusetts Avenue, he saw a cyclist pass him heading in the opposite direction. Based upon the stills and video, and given the backpack and clothes the cyclist was wearing, the officer observed that the cyclist matched the description of the suspect from the basement closet. He made a U-turn to follow the cyclist, who turned onto Massachusetts Avenue and proceeded north towards Harvard Square. When the officer reached the cyclist and pulled alongside, he rechecked the still photos that he had in his car and concluded that the cyclist was in fact the person in the photos. He immediately called his department for backup. A second MIT Police officer, accompanied by the special agent, responded by car from the MIT Police station.

This may well be how the federal investigation into Aaron Swartz started and how it happened that the Secret Service immediately took the lead.

But I do find the timing of MIT’s report release rather interesting. After all, just 12 days ago, they successfully moved to prevent the imminent disclosure of the Secret Service’s own reports on the investigation to Wired’s Kevin Poulsen.

The December 2010 Black Hole in the Network Interface Closet

As I’ve suggested, I’m very interested in pinpointing when and how the Federal government first got involved in the investigation of the JSTOR downloading and what role MIT had in the Feds getting involved. While Swartz’ lawyers put together a timeline of the investigation, it constitutes grand jury material that is currently sealed (though you can be sure the content of it would have been aired during Swartz’ trial).

And while we can get a pretty good idea of how the investigation proceeded from court documents, there two periods about which I have questions: December 2010, and the day of January 4, 2011.

The timeline below shows how Swartz allegedly accessed JSTOR documents, along with the response that JSTOR, MIT, and the government took. As you can see, the investigative narrative sort of fades out for the entire month of December 2010, when Swartz had a computer hooked right into MIT’s network. And then–due to what gets vaguely described as new tools to track flows on MIT’s own network–they found Swartz’ computer. But there’s a weird lapse in time, too: JSTOR notes that Swartz is downloading again around Christmas. But MIT doesn’t go find the computer–which it has recently acquired the ability to do–until January 4. Note, too, that the indictment treats the downloads from November 29 to December 26 as one charge, and those from December 27 to January 4, as another.

That leads to January 4, 2011, when according to the public fillings, the Cambridge cops and Secret Service got brought in and–almost immediately–SS takes over the case and MIT hands over data flow materials to SS without demanding a warrant. HuffPo explained that process this way:

According to the source close to the investigation, when MIT employees found the laptop, they contacted MIT police, who called Cambridge police, where the call was then routed to a detective assigned to the New England Electronic Crimes Task Force. That detective contacted another member of the task force, Michael Pickett, a special agent with the U.S. Secret Service, who helped lead the investigation.

In addition, MIT allows SS to get Carnegie Mellon’s CERT to collect the signals from Swartz’ laptop in a dropbox; when Swartz’ lawyers first asked for CERT’s notes on that data flow, the government refused to turn it over, saying that since they would not call any CERT experts to testify they didn’t have to.

I’m wondering several things. First, what were the new tools MIT used to analyze their networks in December 2010? Where did they come from? When did they get them? Was the JSTOR download the reason they did?

And also, what kind of legal analysis did MIT go through before they just let the government into their networks?

Finally, what obligations was MIT under to file Suspicious Activity Reports to the government regarding the JSTOR downloads and when did those obligations kick in? Did MIT comply with those obligations? Did the government know MIT’s network was compromised as early as September, or not until Cambridge brought in SS in January?

To be clear: I’m not suggesting anything nefarious about this–though I am mindful of this, from the scope of the investigation MIT President Rafael Reif has ordered: “I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took.” That is, Reif now wants to know which of the decisions MIT pursued they had legal choices to avoid.

The government’s consolidated response to Swartz’ suppression motion claims that “neither local nor federal law enforcement officers were investigating Swartz’s downloading action before January 4, 2011, when MIT first found the laptop.” Note, they refer just to Swartz’ downloading action, not Swartz (though that may just be legal particularity), so it is possible though unlikely that federal law enforcement officers were investigating other activities of Swartz before then (we know the FBI had investigated his PACER downloads the previous year).

Note: the following timeline depends on the assertions of both the government and Swartz’ lawyers. It represents alleged facts as presented by self-interested parties, not uncontested facts. Documents used include the hardware search warrant affidavit,  superseding indictment, motion for discoverypre January 4 suppression motion, January 4-6 suppression motionconsolidated response to motion to suppress, and exhibit to supplement to motion to suppress. I’ve also included Swartz’ FOIAs, as described in this Jason Leopold story, because I find some of the coincidences intriguing (see especially the timing of his request for Secret Service access to encrypted files and CERT, which I’ll return to in a later post). Read more

Jonathan Gruber Failed to Disclose His $392,600 Contracts with HHS (Updated)

MIT health economist Jonathan Gruber has been the go-to source that all the health care bill apologists point to to defend otherwise dubious arguments.  But he has consistently failed to disclose that he has had a sole-source contract with the Department of Health and Human Services since June 19, 2009 to consult on the “President’s health reform proposal.”

He is one source for the claim that the excise tax will result in raises for workers (though his underlying study is in-apt to the excise tax question). He is the basis for the argument that the Senate bill reduces families’ risk–even if it remains totally unaffordable. Even Politico stenographer Mike Allen points to Gruber’s research.

But none of the references to Gruber I’ve seen have revealed that Gruber has a $297,600 contract with HHS to produce,

a technical memorandum on the estimated changes in health insurance coverage and associated costs and impacts to the government under alternative specifications of health system reform. The requirement includes developing estimates of various health reform proposals on health insurance coverage and cost. The alternative specifications to be considered will be derived from the President’s health reform proposal. [my emphasis]

(h/t Mote Dai)

The President’s health reform proposal? But I thought this was the Senate’s health reform proposal?!?!? (wink!)

Now, HHS says they had to put Dr. Gruber in charge of evaluating health care reform proposals because he’s got,

a proven micro-simulation model with the flexibility to ascertain the distribution of changes in health care spending and public and private sector health care costs due to a large variety of changes in health insurance benefit design, public program eligibility criteria, and tax policy.

Even assuming that Gruber is the only one in the world who can run these simulations, don’t you think it’s rather, um, dubious that the guy evaluating the heath care reform–for $300,000–is also the package’s single biggest champion?

And no one has been transparent about this contract?

Update: Actually, Gruber failed to disclose his $392,600 contracts with HSS. The reference to ongoing work in the bigger, second one refers to a $95,000 contract he had from March 25, 2009 to July 25, 2009.