Report to the President:
MIT and the Prosecution of Aaron Swartz | Past letters

Aaron Swartz

January 13, 2013

To the members of the MIT community:

Yesterday we received the shocking and terrible news that on Friday in New York, Aaron Swartz, a gifted young man well known and admired by many in the MIT community, took his own life. With this tragedy, his family and his friends suffered an inexpressible loss, and we offer our most profound condolences. Even for those of us who did not know Aaron, the trail of his brief life shines with his brilliant creativity and idealism.

Although Aaron had no formal affiliation with MIT, I am writing to you now because he was beloved by many members of our community and because MIT played a role in the legal struggles that began for him in 2011.

I want to express very clearly that I and all of us at MIT are extremely saddened by the death of this promising young man who touched the lives of so many. It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy.

I will not attempt to summarize here the complex events of the past two years. Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT. I have asked Professor Hal Abelson to lead a thorough analysis of MIT's involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in fall 2010 up to the present. 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. I will share the report with the MIT community when I receive it.

I hope we will all reach out to those members of our community we know who may have been affected by Aaron's death. As always, MIT Medical is available to provide expert counseling, but there is no substitute for personal understanding and support.

With sorrow and deep sympathy,

L. Rafael Reif

On releasing documents related to the Aaron Swartz case

March 19, 2013

To the members of the MIT Community:

I am writing to explain an important step that MIT has decided to take relating to the Aaron Swartz situation. Since this action affects members of our community, directly or indirectly, I want you to hear about it from me.

On Friday, the lawyers for Aaron Swartz's estate filed a legal request with the Boston federal court where the Swartz case would have gone to trial. They demanded that the court release to the public information related to the case, including many MIT documents. Some of these documents contain information about vulnerabilities in MIT's network. Some contain the names of individual MIT employees involved. In fact, the lawyers' request argues that those names cannot be excluded ("redacted") from the documents and urges that they be released in the public domain and delivered to Congress.

At MIT, we believe in openness, and we are not afraid to reexamine our own actions; indeed, it was with those values in mind that I asked Professor Hal Abelson to undertake his analysis following Aaron Swartz's tragic suicide. But I believe that openness must be balanced with reasonable concern for privacy and safety. That is especially true in this situation. In the time since Aaron Swartz's suicide, we have seen a pattern of harassment and personal threats. In this volatile atmosphere, I have the responsibility to protect the privacy and safety of those members of our community who have become involved in this matter in the course of doing their jobs for MIT, and to ensure a safe environment for all of us who call MIT home.

Therefore — in the spirit of openness, balanced with responsibility — we will release the requested MIT documents, redacting employee names and identifying information as appropriate to protect their privacy, as well as redacting information about network vulnerabilities. We will release these documents at the same time that we release Professor Abelson's report. In this way, our own community and those outside can examine both these primary documents and Professor Abelson's analysis, which he is now forming through a careful process that includes a review of this written material as well as extensive in-person interviews.

I am eager to receive his report; I am sure that many of you are, as well. But I trust Professor Abelson to take the time he needs to complete a thorough analysis. In the meantime — because this is being played out in public — I wanted you to know what I am thinking and doing, and why.

Rafael Reif

Letters to The Tech from President L. Rafael Reif and Hal Abelson

May 13, 2013

Letter to The Tech from Hal Abelson

This is an update for the MIT community about the analysis President Reif asked me to lead last January on the events concerning MIT and Aaron Swartz. I'm preparing a report together with Institute Professor Emeritus Peter Diamond and Washington, DC attorney Andrew Grosso. We're being supported by Assistant Provost Doug Pfeiffer. The four of us have been working hard. Given the visibility of the Aaron Swartz case and the controversies surrounding it, it's important to get the report right and to take the necessary time and effort to do that. My plan is to give my report to President Reif this summer.

Letter to The Tech from L. Rafael Reif

Professor Abelson has shared with me the letter that is published in this edition of The Tech. I write briefly to offer my thoughts on it.

From the time I asked Professor Abelson to conduct a thorough analysis of MIT's involvement in events that preceded Aaron Swartz's death in January, I have said that Professor Abelson must take whatever time he needs in order to complete his work, and I have given him the freedom to conduct his work as he sees fit. I am pleased to know that he is making good progress, and I look forward to receiving the report, sharing it with the public, and having a discussion in the fall within the MIT community about its implications.

Read the letters on The Tech site

Letter to MIT community from L. Rafael Reif regarding a Swartz-related court action taken by MIT

July 21, 2013

Dear Editors,

On Friday, July 19, I received a concerned email from a recent MIT graduate I know well, who suggested I write a letter to the Tech explaining to the MIT community a court action recently taken by MIT. I wrote back to tell her that I thought that was a good idea.

On Thursday, July 18, in the US District Court in Washington, DC, MIT filed a motion to intervene in a pending Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) case in which a reporter is seeking the disclosure of US Secret Service documents related to Aaron Swartz.

From the time of that filing, there has been reporting and conjecture on blogs and in social media that MIT is trying to block the release of these documents — and that MIT is taking too long to release its promised report by Professor Hal Abelson on MIT's involvement in "US v. Aaron Swartz." I'd like to address those two concerns.

In March, I wrote to the MIT community describing our plan to release, at the same time we release Professor Abelson's report, a group of documents related to the Swartz case, but with two kinds of information removed: the names of and identifying information about individual employees, and information that could compromise the security of the MIT network. As you will recall, in the volatile atmosphere of that time, we had seen a pattern of harassment and personal threats against people at MIT, as well as attacks on our computer system; my responsibility to protect the safety of our employees and our network was, and remains, very real. In that same letter, I also explained that once Professor Abelson completed his report, we would also release these documents to the public.

We intervened in the FOIA case for the simple reason that MIT feels an obligation to ensure that its employees and its network are protected under the legal standards of FOIA, and MIT is best situated to identify information that would compromise its employees' privacy or its network security if released.

We are not trying to stop the public release of these documents. We are simply asking for the opportunity to look at them carefully so we can be confident that the proper redactions have been made, so that releasing them does not pose a risk to MIT employees who became involved in the case in the course of simply doing their jobs. To avoid unduly delaying the FOIA lawsuit, MIT asked the Court to schedule an expedited hearing on its request and proposed a process for quick review. JSTOR filed a similar request with the Court on Friday, July 19.

In the end, what matters are the facts — and it is the facts that Professor Abelson is working hard to bring to light. I have allowed him all the time he needs to complete the report to his standards. He has undertaken an important project. We are on track to release the report this summer.

For those who wish to learn more about our recent court action, this MIT News story offers a useful description of what we did and why:

Rafael Reif