Privacy SOS

FBI file on Aaron Swartz reveals physical surveillance, two month investigation in 2009

Firedoglake blogger DSWright has published documents they received in response to a FOIA request to the FBI for any records the bureau held on Aaron Swartz. The FBI disclosed 21 pages and withheld two. 

The documents show that Swartz was under an open FBI investigation that began on February 6, 2009 and ended on April 20, 2009. The bureau was looking into Swartz’ involvement in the development and implementation of a computer program that automatically downloaded federal court records from the PACER system. Presumably the intention was to free this public information, to enable anyone to access it with a simple internet connection.

The FBI did not like this, it seems, and called the event a “compromise” of the court data. According to the released files, the first thing the FBI did upon receiving a tip about the program was find out where the data liberated from PACER was sent. That led investigators to Aaron Swartz’ Amazon cloud IP address, which led to a physical address in Highland Park, Illinois. The agents searched the FBI’s criminal database NCIC and turned up no hits on Aaron. Agents also searched the Department of Labor’s database to figure out how much money he made but were unsuccessful there, too. 

The FBI in Washington then tasked agents in the Chicago field office to do a little physical spying on Swartz.

Washington Field Office requests that the North RA attempt to locate AARON SWARTZ, his vehicles, drivers license information and picture, and others, at 349 Marshman Avenue, Highland Park, IL 60035. Since SWARTZ is the potential subject of an ongoing investigation, it is requested that SWARTZ not be approached by Agents.

About two weeks later, the Chicago field office wrote back:

Attempted to locate AARON SWARTZ, his vehicles, drivers license information and picture, and others at [the address].

Successfully located drivers license photo for SWARTZ. Drove by address in an attempt to locate SWARTZ or vehicles related to the residence, but was unsuccessful. House is set on a deep lot, behind other houses on Marshman Avenue. This is a heavily wooded, dead-end street, with no other cars parked on the road making continued surveillance difficult to conduct without severely increasing the risk of discovery. However, drivers license and [redacted] information lists address above. Other family members are listed as current residence and four vehicles are currently registered to [redacted] who resides at above address. Illinois a database checks for SWARTZ yielded negative results. SWARTZ has no arrests, no registered vehicles or property.

Chicago considers this lead covered.

A few days before that report came in to Washington, agents there were busy putting together whatever information they could find about Aaron from public sources online. They list his many accomplishments as well as his LinkedIn page, information about his BA degree from Stanford, networks Swartz was in on Facebook, and information from his personal webpage.

The following few pages basically copy and paste parts of this blog on the PACER-Swartz incident, from the NYT’s The Lede.

In early March, agents describe information they received from the Administrative Office of the US Courts about how the PACER system works, including information about user permissions.

Then on April 14, a special agent calls Aaron Swartz. Someone else answers the phone and takes the agent’s information down, promising to pass the message on to Swartz. Swartz then calls the agent and leaves a message on her phone, advising her to call him back at a cellphone number. “This number is a T-Mobile cellular number and returned negative results [redacted.]” Presumably what’s redacted here is that agents searched for any hits on Swartz’ cell phone number in the FBI’s Telephone Application (TA) database at headquarters. That database contains pen register and trap and trace information on targets of FBI investigations. That’s a complicated way of saying “lists of everyone who has called the target and of who everyone the target has called.” Searching the database would help investigators find out if Swartz was talking to anyone the FBI had previously investigated, or anyone who had talked to anyone under prior FBI investigation.

Anyway, having turned up nothing by searching whatever database they searched (probably the TA), the agent called Swartz back. The files say that the agent “explained that the FBI is looking for information on how SWARTZ was able to compromise the PACER system so that the US COURTS could implement repairs to the system and get PACER running again.”

Like the smart guy he was, Swartz told the agent that “he would have to talk to his attorney.”

But the person the agent spoke to next wasn’t so smart, and when the agent told the person, whose name is redacted, that the FBI wanted to figure out how to “get PACER operational again,” the person reportedly said: “I can not tell you how Aaron did it.” Had Aaron ever been prosecuted for the PACER incident, this statement could have been used against him. It illustrates why, even if you think you know what you are doing, you should never talk to the FBI without your lawyer present.

On April 16, it appears as if Swartz’ lawyer got in touch with the FBI. The person I presume was Swartz’ attorney “wanted assurance that if Swartz was interviewed, what he said would not be used to jeopardize him. [Special Agent redacted] explained that assurance could not be given…[redacted] refused the interview without the assurance.”

Four days later the FBI closed the investigation, citing the fact that the DOJ’s Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section attorney assigned to the case had closed that office’s case against Swartz.

Read the released records here.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.