When Should Hacking Be Legal?

A group of academics and journalists say a federal computer-fraud law criminalizes their work.

When Aaron Swartz, a prominent programmer and digital activist, was arrested in 2011, he was halfway through a fellowship at Harvard’s Center for Ethics. Police took him in after he entered a computer closet at MIT and downloaded enormous amounts of data from JSTOR’s extensive database of academic research.

Swartz was charged with 13 felonies, 11 of them based on the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, or CFAA. Some of the charges hinged on violations of JSTOR’s terms of service, which prohibit bulk, automated downloads that prevent other customers from accessing its documents. Faced with the possibility of decades in prison and up to a million dollars in fines, Swartz took his own life in 2013.

Share