News recap: key summer stories
Abelson’s Swartz report, dorm security changes, and more
As you settle onto campus, you may wonder what changes happened over the summer. Here’s a summary of some of the topics The Tech has covered to get you up to speed.
Swartz report released
On July 30, MIT released its highly anticipated report on the Institute’s involvement in the federal prosecution of the late Internet activist Aaron Swartz. The report found that the Institute maintained “neutrality” during Swartz’s prosecution, but missed a chance to show “leadership” in the two years before his suicide in January.
The report came six months after MIT president L. Rafael Reif asked computer science professor Hal Abelson PhD ’73 to conduct an independent investigation into the Swartz case.
Following Swartz’s death, MIT came under fire from commentators who saw MIT as party to an unfairly aggressive government prosecution. Swartz had been charged with 13 felony counts after downloading millions of JSTOR articles to a laptop secretly hooked up to a network switch in a Building 16 basement closet. At one point, his actions prompted JSTOR to cut off MIT’s access to its content for three days.
The report found that MIT did not purposefully “call in the feds,” made no public statements for or against the government’s prosecution, sought no punishment for Swartz, and responded similarly, for the most part, to requests from the prosecution and the defense for documents and witnesses.
However, the report acknowledged that “neutrality in responses was not consistent with neutrality in outcomes,” and explained that MIT also voluntarily handed over some documents to the prosecution but not the defense, operating under the asymmetric assumption that the defense would get documents from the prosecution.
But critics of MIT are troubled by more than the specifics of the report’s narrative, with some arguing that MIT’s overall inaction was negligent, or worse.
Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Swartz’s partner, called the report a “whitewash,” saying in a statement that MIT did actually pick a side — the wrong one. “MIT’s lawyers gave prosecutors total access to witnesses and evidence, while refusing access to Aaron’s lawyers to the exact same witnesses and evidence,” she wrote. “That’s not neutral.” Others, including Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT Center for Civic Media and Charlie Furman, campaign manager at Demand Progress, an activist organization founded by Aaron Swartz, criticized the report as an opportunity for MIT to avoid negative publicity and its failure to name the decision-makers in MIT’s involvement as “hiding behind a bureaucratic structure.” Abelson defended this practice however: “We know that people have been threatened, so it’s no joke if you get your name in this report.”
“We are fully aware that [many] names are readily discoverable on the Internet. Even so, we see no need to further erode their personal privacy,” an appendix to the report read.”
After reading the report, Reif said he thought MIT’s actions were “appropriate,” at the same time calling for a review of MIT’s policies on computer crime and electronic records. He also asked the provost and the faculty chair to “design a process of community engagement” to “explore” questions about intellectual property, technology, ethics, and hacker culture.
Additional Swartz evidence released
On Aug. 12, the Secret Service released 104 pages of its files on Swartz, at the request of a journalist. Delayed from the July 19 date initially ordered by the court, the pages chosen for release do not include any reference to MIT or JSTOR, as both had filed motions intervening in the public-records request in mid July, asking the court to allow MIT and JSTOR to review the documents and propose redactions.
The motions are similar to MIT and JSTOR’s March 29 requests in U.S. v. Swartz that some information, including the names of employees, be redacted in publicly released documents. The judge in that case ruled to allow the redactions.
The pages released by the Secret Service are but a sliver of its files on Swartz. The Secret Service has said that it has at least 14,500 pages possibly related to Swartz, and that it will take six months or more to process them.
Authorities seized Swartz’s blue metallic iPod during their investigations, among other electronics, one document shows. Another document, a heavily redacted interview write-up, suggests that the Secret Service probed into Swartz’s Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, which argues for open access to scientific journals.
So far however, the largest collection of released documents related to the investigation and prosecution of Swartz is the one MIT released on July 30, as promised by President L. Rafael Reif in March after calls for transparency. The collection includes 3,756 pages of emails and materials shared with state and federal prosecutors, and 154 pages of emails and materials shared with Swartz’s defense.
The documents, in which most names of MIT employees are blacked out, include pictures of Swartz in the Building 16 closet where he hooked his laptop up to a network switch and downloaded millions of JSTOR research papers using a Python script in 2010 and 2011. Those actions, which disrupted MIT’s access to JSTOR for three days, led to 13 felony charges, pursued by what many saw as an ove zealous federal prosecution.
Dorm security changes
This fall, residents of Baker, Maseeh, McCormick, Next House, Simmons and the graduate dorms Tang Hall and Westgate will see several changes to their dorms’ security policies. The security changes came about as a result of the 2010 security report authored by Professor Iain W. Stewart and Police Chief John DiFava after a robbery in Baker House in 2010.
As part of the first phase of security updates, students and guests will be required to undergo visual verification before entering the dorm. To facilitate this, each building’s card scanner will be moved to the front desk. Before being permitted to enter the dorm, a student must scan their MIT ID, at which point their face will appear on a monitor for visual inspection. If a student does not have an ID, they may enter the dorm after providing their name and being compared to their photo.
Additionally, MIT Residential Life and Dining has hired professional desk attendants from security company AlliedBarton to handle all security responsibilities including tracking guests, and security cameras will be installed at the perimeters of each dorm. According to Henry J. Humphreys, senior associate dean of residential life and dining, the professional desk attendants will be at desk from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. Students will still work at desk to deliver services such as checking out equipment. “We did not take away the student employment opportunity,” said Humphreys.
According to Humphreys, the hiring of outside security will have no impact on the existing Nightwatch program. “Nightwatch serves a slightly different function than the desk attendants. The desk attendant is a stationary post, whereas Nightwatch, in addition to sitting at the desk, have to make two rounds through the building. Plus, if there’s an emergency from inside the building, [the Nghtwatch] has to go respond to the emergency,” said Humphreys. “The desk attendant, if there’s an emergency in the building, would contact the house team [and/or] call MIT police, but they would never leave their post.”
New backup child care program live
Starting July 1, 2013, undergraduate and graduate students with children were able to pre-register for the new subsidized backup child care program. The new program provides students with access to caregivers on a short notice through Parents in a Pinch, a national vendor for child care services. The program will run as a pilot until June 30, 2014, when it will evaluated for renewal.
For up to 10 days of the fiscal year, students can use the backup child care service, which provides a nanny at a subsidized rate of $5 per hour. Any days beyond the ten days cost $18.50 per hour and a daily placement fee ranging from $25 to $50.
The program aims to give students more flexibility and relieve some of the stress that comes with balancing academics and disruptions to normal child care.
The Office of the Provost, MIT Work-Life Center, and Graduate Student Council (GSC) will fund the five-figure program. The GSC will provide $38,000 from Career Fair profits, with additional funding provided by the provost. The GSC worked through the Office of the Dean of Graduate Education (ODGE) and Dean Christine Ortiz to obtain the additional funding needed from the provost, with support of Chancellor Eric Grimson PhD ’80.
“Hopefully it will be a long-term program. We think it will be able to touch everybody in a way other programs don’t do as easily,” said Simons. “I think it’s going to one of those programs that will be kept.”
Summaries compiled by Deborah Chen.