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Aaron Swartz faces Cyberpharisees:

The First Martyr of Cyberwar

Pedro A. D. Rezende
Computer Science Department
University of Brasilia
January 19, 2013

I start writing here, as a Christian academic from Brazil who admires Aaron Swartz, while his funeral happens at the central synagogue of an Illinois town, where this web genius was born 26 years ago. I write mainly for those who do not know this martyred hero or his legacy. Aaron's legacy touches me to the point of having said, at past talks where I showed the first image bellow (of a law review paper), that he seems to be the kid anyone with my profile would dream to have as son. I write as the outcome of his confrontation against overwhelming forces of cybernated pharisaism, ever more dominant, frames a propitious moment to reflect on the crossroads in history we are all approaching in such our times.

We can read that Aaron's commitment to social justice, according to his mother, was deep and defined his life. A life of a programmer, writer, archivist, political organizer and hacktivist. We read that Aaron contributed as a teenager, via RSS-DEV Working Group, to co-author the 1.0 version of the RSS electronics syndication protocol - "push" technology that proliferates the democratization of access to information on the web - and then, with free desktop publishing tool, with the architecture of Open Library, and with the incubation of the Reddit portal, which innovated the news aggregation field in the web by including reviews from readers, about the quality of the news, for automated ratings.

We also read that he contributed to the RDF Core Working Group at W3C (World Wide Web Consortium), writing the RFC 3870 specification which defines this accessibility standard, and to the implementation of the automation layer for generic permissive licenses, via meta-tags, to be used in copyrighted works of those authors who want to make them available under a CC license, at the beginning of the Creative Commons movement which popularized the free software philosophy to other intellectual production regimes. And that he came to know leaders of the CC movement by having won, at age 13, an ArsDigita Prize contest honoring best creators of "useful, educational and collaborative non-commercial websites."

But we believe that more serious commitments were what gave rise to his confrontation with pharisees over cyber matters. Instead of aiming, at the socio-economic realm, to become the successful millionaire that his visionary computational genius allowed, Aaron devoted himself almost entirely, in the political and academic arenas, to raise awareness of citizens and humanists to the extreme danger in certain connections between stealthy and perky interests, enabled by cyber mediation. Such dedication projected him as a member of the Center for Ethics at Harvard University, as founder of the Demand Progress group, and as a member of international activist groups Rootstrikers and Avaaz.

Fury fanned

The wrath of infatuated moralists who immorally exert illegitimate power from the shadows, usually by self-serving radicalization in lawmaking and selective punitive rigor, were already stirred up sometime earlier. Al least since Aaron, with his ability to program, went to collaborate with academic research involving data mining, later published in a scientific journal. And when he first released, downloaded and posted in a cloud computing service more than 19 million files (20%) from the PACER repository (Public Access to Court Electronic Records), a web site run by a federal government agency which archives documents from lawsuits sentenced at U.S. Federal Courts, selling access to them by a fee per page.

Such republication of copies, donated to the Public Resource NGO, does not violate any rights, just as an FBI investigation later recognized, because U.S. copyright law classifies non-secret documents from state agencies always as in public domain. In 2008 the director of this NGO had urged other activists to visit any of the 17 libraries that were offering free access to PACER "on an experimental basis" (banned soon after), to download documents and send them to his NGO for public distribution. Aaron went to the one at the Chicago courthouse, where he did this by running a Perl script, but what he wanted was not just to heed this call, unfettering access to such public information, as he stated here:

"The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier. There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it."

Aaron also wanted, with this type of information released, to mine enough data so as to better look for correlations between funding of academic research and bias in judicial decisions favorable to interests held by these funders, allowing any interested party to obtain and recheck the results of such mining freely. The scientific research for which Aaron contributed enabling, programming, systematizing and allowing unrestricted verification of these correlations, mined for over 440 thousand "scientific" papers, was published in an article entitled "Punitive Damages, Remunerated Research, and the Legal Profession" at the Stanford Law Review Journal later that year.

   Correlations mined

    The article's summary illustrates well what was found:

"A sociology professor is sitting in his office one day when he receives an unsolicited call from a representative of a large corporation facing a devastating punitive damages award. The caller says that the corporation is "exploring . . . whether it's feasible to get something published in a respectable academic journal, talking about what punitive damage awards do to society, or how they're not really a very good approach." The caller explains, "[t]hen, in [the corporation's] appeal, we can cite the article, and note that professor so-and-so has said in this academic journal, preferably a quite prestigious one, that punitive awards don't make much sense." The professor was William Freudenburg and the corporation was Exxon, which contacted Freudenburg and a host of other scholars in the wake of its appeal of a $5 billion punitive damages verdict arising from the Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska.
This practice of soliciting and then funding "for-litigation" research is not unique to Exxon. A host of other groups, including corporations and conservative think tanks with corporate underwriters, continue to fund research for the purpose of presenting their findings to courts in order to discredit jury verdicts that awarded punitive damages against them. This kind of hired-gun research would be problematic even if the results were accurate, because as the Supreme Court has recently acknowledged, it creates an appearance of bias. But even more troubling is the fact that prominent scholars have discredited this research by showing that numerous industry-funded law review articles are methodologically flawed..."

But Aaron's audacity in his quest for social justice did not cooled with this. Rather the opposite. His initiative to found Demand Progress culminated, from 2010, a social mobilization effort which began with calls for undersigners to join on-line petitions in opposition to the COICA bill (Combating On-line Infringements and Counterfeits Act), followed by eighteen months of activism to help overthrow the SOPA and PIPA successors. About this overthrow, Aaron himself summed up as follows at the 2012 F2C event (Freedom to Connect), in Washington DC, where he was invited as a key speaker:

"There's a battle going on right now, a battle to define everything that happens on the internet in terms of traditional things that the law understands... [Under SOPA], new technology, instead of bringing us greater freedom, would have snuffed out fundamental rights we'd always taken for granted."

Inescapable nightmare

Aaron was referring to the series of protests against the SOPA bill promoted by various websites - including Wikipedia and Google -, described by the Electronic Frontier Foundation as the biggest in Internet history, with over 115 thousand sites altering with alerts or suspending access to their pages. On the "main course" following the nightmarish blitzkrieg to approve that "soup" ("sopa" in portuguese) in the U.S. Congress, in the same speech he added:

 "And it will happen again; sure, it will have another name, and maybe a different excuse, and probably do its damage in a different way, but make no mistake, the enemies of the freedom to connect have not disappeared. The fire in those politician's eyes has not been put out. There are a lot of people, a lot of powerful people, who wanna clamp down on the Internet"

 In other words, there are many cyberpharisees who want take over the Internet. And for that they will stalk activists who seek to undermine such intent. Especially brilliant hackativists, such as Aaron Swartz and Julian Assange, with the greatest possible fury. Armed with trickery and absurd lies, as can be seen and heard. Who thinks that the main reason behind the enormous pressure on governments worldwide to adopt laws like COICA, SOPA and PIPA, global treaties such as the WIPO Broadcast, ACTA and TPP, or their precursors such as CFAA - which cornered Aaron until his death - or Digital AI-5 - which under sneaky pressure entrenched in the Budapest convention mimics the CFAA in Brazil - is the goal to combat cybercrime?

Those who still believe or profess to believe so, ingesting such goebbelian propaganda as real, are fooling themselves or acting to deceive. In Brazil this can be checked by knowing the circumstances under which the Digital AI-5 bill was born and baptized as law. It was born under the hideous impact of another innocent corpse, except this one useful to the real agenda of those powerful, and it was baptized as law on a ride with an unauthorized virtual nakedness of a local TV star, cheating on the agreement with opponents to vote it only after the approval of a Civil Framework law for the Internet. Those who enter this type of agreement believing that cyberpharisaism can be placated, will find nasty surprises trying to escape the nightmare to come.

Legal Front

The Internet allows for the control of flows, in the virtual realm and by virtue of combinatorial laws, flows of meanings through streams of data, but it also has allowed for commanding accountability, in the life world and by virtue of legal standards, onto those operating these flows or led to act by them. With laws and treaties that are increasingly harsh and unbalanced, negotiated in increasingly obscure ways, typifying crimes which are increasingly broad and vague, often victim-less, making the inept or atypical use of digital means of access increasingly and selectively dangerous, and these norms and practices increasingly questionable under any universalistic or non-skeptical ethics, feeding the politicization of the judiciary as has happened in past crises (via economic laws, in the rise of Nazism for instance). This is now the normative and legal fronts of cyberwar.

To pen down Aaron with the first of these laws, it was enough that he entered a small unlocked closet at MIT and connected there his laptop. On the other hand, no law enforcer armed with them dares to corner the perky powerful that create piles of phony money with mere mouse clicks, firing commands on their connected laptops, truly stealing from the reserve value of the circulating currency thus defrauded, while keeping the world under the current economic crisis by reciting spells, in the guise of preventing "something worse". Quantitave Easing! These cyberpharisees keep blackmailing governments and getting more privileges from them, while dining with pomp at the White House or at palaces in Brasilia, and - worse - while dictating these laws and treaties behind locked doors.

On that fateful closet at MIT, Aaron rushed. To unfetter scientific works written over a hundred years ago, for which the right to copy is secured to all by them already being in the public domain, he did not wait for free access "on an experimental basis", this time to the JSTOR site. This company makes a lot of money "turnstileing" access to someone else's works scanned, but its "experimental basis" bypass only emerged, and only by a dropper, after Aaron has been already cornered, days before his death. The limit of 30 downloaded files "allowed" per month, imposed on researchers from institutions - like MIT - which pay to use this virtual turnstile, derails research based on data mining. Unjustified basis, in case of works in the public domain, according to the activist's ethics and logic.

Therefore when Aaron entered the unlocked closet where some MIT network routers sit, exactly two years before his death, and plugged in his laptop to connect with the JSTOR site, so that the site would yield access based on the MIT network IP address chosen, thus allowing him to bypass identification by the internal network which would have driven him through that virtual turnstile, he bit the bait. When he returned later to pick up his laptop, to take the copies of works in public domain which his script has selected and downloaded between the two visits, Aaron was arrested by undercover agents. He was then formally charged, with the images from a camera hidden around that closet as evidence.


Shortly after his arrest, JSTOR issued a statement saying the company would not sue him, but Aaron was only released after paying bail of $ 100 thousand dollars. Awaiting trial, later scheduled for April 2013. Weighed against Aaron, until his untimely, death, at least four charges under the CFAA, in criminal proceedings conducted by attorneys Stephen Heymann and Scott Garland: wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer (protected by an unlocked door in an institution which had welcomed him as a researcher), and damage to a protected computer (which?), with the supposed intention - gasp up - to share files, the many downloaded.

In this landmark case, involving human self-sacrifice to expose its absurdity, the "told you so" bytes had been profusely laid before, at least in works criticizing CFAA's clone in Brazil [in portuguese]: a fatal ruse in these laws, here applied, define crime types in blank, but fillable: by terms of services controlled by digital technology barons in an open network. So these extensions of such types proliferate ad infinitum, along with available means to prove their violations, including stealth opt-outs and extemporaneous ones, while types that assume strict liability on Internet users render all means to raise sufficient acquitting proof for the accused unfeasible. As this case shows, with crystalline objectivity. A case of effective cyberwar operation in the legal front, as we shall see, executed with trickery to exploit sacralized artificial scarcity of symbolic goods.

After realizing this nonsense, JSTOR asked the Massachusetts General Attorney Office (GAO), in charge of the case, to cease the lawsuit, but from MIT only silence could be officially heard about it. The GAO pursued the case, expanding the accusation to thirteen counts. When asked about this decision, which threatened Aaron with up to US$ 1 million fine and 35 years in federal prison, with a label of felon replacing his laptop, the office's boss, Carmen Ortiz, without giving a damn about the cibersquatting of scientific works in public domain contextualizing the case at hand, gave the following justification to journalists, which one can't help but look into it for some pun:

"Stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars."

One can imagine that Ms. Ortiz may not be speaking of acts performed by Aaron and his laptop in that closet. It would make no sense ... unless she was taken by hypocrisy, cynicism and chutzpah at levels incompatible with her office ... but which cyberpharisees on duty increasingly dare with. Even laymen know that in law, stealing means deprivation of possession of something to the rightful owner. JSTOR was not deprived of possession of documents downloaded: the scanned "originals" are still there, unchanged at the same site. This holds even if JSTOR was their rightful owner. So much so that JSTOR itself denies having suffered with this "stealing", of data (what would that be?) or whatever, or that it suffered violation of its copyrights. The copied documents are in public domain, and thus the acts in that closet - copying them on download - are legal and legitimate.

Freudian slip?

If only she was to talk with one letter flipped in her phrase, however, everything would fit. If Ms. Ortiz had said "... Whether you use a computer command, and whether you Make documents, data or dollars," well that would make good sense. For she could then be referring to those perky interests who recite spells such as "quantitative easing", since this is to make documents that make data (about currency "stock") that make dollars, a practice that - even lay people victimized or not by inflation know this - always truly steals, from the reserve value of the currency. If she hosts a modicum of humbleness, and admits to a possible slip in exchanging the letter M for T, then there is a test to decide whether or not she takes for real the blindfold in the iconic statue of Justice.

Simple: just give Ms. Ortiz the SEC sheriff's desk and charge her to deliver the same persecutory furor displayed about events at that closet, now against those interests who are making documents that make data (about virtual currency stock) that make (tainted) dollars, held by perky people running back and forth between central banks and financial corporations. If she does not understand, dissembles, or rages as did her husband upon tweeting vituperations against Aaron's family about the funeral of our first cyber martyr, then Upton Sinclair's principle upholds - it is difficult to make someone understand something when her livelihood depends on her not understanding that something - and the diagnosis for Ms. Ortiz can be closed: cyberpharisaism, in fallacious state - whose definitive symptom is fluency in the doublespeak mumble described by Orwell.

Whoever believe that fallacious cyberpharisaism is just a psychological disorder or a character trait, tolerable under the moral relativism of our times, or that these types of disorders do not yet or no longer do intolerable harm to society, put themselves on a collision course with the nasty surprises that the nightmare to come will bring. It may even be a disorder, but it also works as a semiologic weapon when mixed with power, effective in a cyberwar theater whose boundaries, actors and targets are elusive outside cyberspace. Really, "target" can be embodied in me, who write this, and you, who read and believe. Even in Brazil, since this weaponized disorder is epidemic and ubiquitous in cyberspace. In regard to Brazil, one can detour here to find out how its CFAA clone -- Digital AI-5 -- could be operated under cyberpharisaic rage, and then keep on reading.

Those who lived the Cold War through McCarthyism or in the Third World, under some relentless doctrine of "national security" played out by lackeys of the powerful mentioned by Aaron on the 2012 F2C event, they already know the concept. The script is repeated in cyberwar, except there with more deceptions, new labels, adjectives, criminal types and kinds of witches, now decanting an implicit doctrine of "cybersecurity." We can realize this by examining the flow of news from corporate media, armed with a filter to catch cyberpharisaic fallacies. Who, for example, fights who in cyberwar? A good source for the author is the local newspaper preferred by those powerful and their lackeys, Valor Econômico. In its June 14, 2011 edition, with headlines and full page coverage, we can read - and filter - a message about a "new concern of governments" (cyberwarfare):

New concern for governments

Where it says, translated from the yellow box, "the interest of hackers" (that Brazil would increasingly awaken), it would sure make more sense "interest of great powers." After all, the hectics inflated in the Arab Spring go on top of oil and geopolitics, below the turmoil in Mali lay the planet's largest reserve of uranium ore, etc. Scolding after niobium, freshwater, agricultural frontiers and ecological reserves will come in time. And who might be labeled as real target, is left undefined for now by the message... except for the new witches, people who are already marked as hacker-activists. As Aaron, who already was, six months before that message's delivery, and as Assange, also trapped by cyberpharisaic rage but still alive, eight months before. Doublespeak is read here in the fact that nameless "hackers" act, in the kinetic front, with Sutxnet and its offshoots.

Following the translated reading, besides the two named above, any Internet user can theoretically turn into target, because, after all, who does not have (underlined in red) "alleged ideological aspirations?" Ideology is like taste, each one has his/hers. The first are the acquired ways of seeing and understanding the world and of acting on it. Even the pharisees, natives or cyber, also have theirs, even if not admitted as such. What makes sense here, then, would be "government's" concern with those who may hold ideological aspirations in conflict with aspirations of those who do find themselves bosses or owners of such governments. This suggests a direction to go in reading, to find the origin of this message, delivered to the letter by the corporate media service preferred by those who do. For that, we copied two more excerpts from the same coverage, below, shielded by Art. 46, III of Law 9.610/98 (Brazil's Copyright Act).

We then learn (underlined in red) that this is from a report by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), western military alliance that includes Turkey (in the Mediterranean). Alliance whose self-found bosses and owners are top executives and financiers of the military-industrial complex mentioned by President Eisenhower after the Second World War. For these warlords, the boundaries of cyberwarfare now include, as priority targets for hunting or scapegoating, the new witches marked by corporate media services as hactivists (from yellow box). Among the traits of that mark (underlined in yellow), lacking in me is perhaps only the recruiting of collaborators (students tend to resist). Computer skills and security know-how, and defending causes such as freedom of expression, come from my professional practice of academic freedom, prerogative inherited from the Enlightenment now under fire in the legal front of cyberwar. Therefore, wherever the reader is, better wake up and beware, specially if heir to some of Aaron's data mining.

The Enlightenment re-founded democracy in its representative version, now about 300 years old. Re-founded with a hiatus of two millennia from the original (Greek), which lasted not much more than that (300 years); thus, with no empirical security of permanence. The Enlightenment era ushered in the dominance of humanistic ideologies, which understand the human being as the center or reference for creation, life and history. Then civilizations prospered under them, enthroning chance as frontier of conquest, and reason as the driving force and gage for values ??in its evolution. Thus, the resulting techno-scientific progress brought us successive "revolutions", of which the most recent - the digital - blossomed the Internet, that morphed into its ever more coveted fruit. In perspective, summarized below, we speculate on how this cyber fruit comes to sow, when mature, the seeds of cyberwar.

What is cyberwar?

We can understand cyberwar as a form of digital counterrevolution, whose inevitable outcome is to precipitate the disintegration of the civilizatory process led by humanist ideologies. This counterrevolution corrodes representative democracy from the inside, with moral toxicity from the arsenals operating in its regulatory and legal fronts. The Internet is the first digital network that is open and global and horizontal in its semiology (any caller can be broadcaster), and in this regard comprehensive. As such, it is an unsurpassed instrument at the same time to intellectual freedom and for social control. With such instrumental promises, self-aggrandizement and greed tend to take over reason in man's heart, and then cyberwar is unleashed, as a struggle between the two ways-to-be for the most coveted fruit of power that the human enterprise ever produced.

However, through his prophets God reveals that humanism is vain idolatry, for it unspiritualizes man, putting him in place of his Creator and thus away from Him. Guided by humanism, man eventually crumbles, having lost its way beyond matter, now relying on the virtual for his "flight of Icarus." For those who learn, with the philosopher Gilles Deleuze, that "virtual" is not an antonym of "matter", nor of "real", but is the indistinguishability between the real and the unreal, this crubling prospect unfolds. When the promises of the most coveted cyber fruit fade away, blown by food and energy shortages to come (these real), the consequent disintegration, worsened by moral corrosion in the heart of men, indicate harvest time at the farm of human dreams. That is what several Biblical prophets tell us, since Joel, thus since well before the Greek democracy was born.
For those who accept the gospel of Christ, this harvest reserves hope. Regarding that time, time of inescapable nightmares for the crumbled, perhaps apostle Paul could not have been more explicit than he was, more than two thousand years before, when writing a second letter to his disciple Timothy. Trapped in a material prison while awaiting execution of his physical death sentence for preaching what seems crazy to unbelievers, the apostle of the Gentiles announced, through his disciple:

"Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything. Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel, for which I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound! Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. ." (II Tm 2:7-10)
"But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people...  But they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all" (II Tm 3:1-5,9)
"For the time is coming when people will not endure sound[a] teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. 5 As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry." (II Tm 4:3-5, E.S.V.)

Aaron's legacy

Finally, how to relate this ministry with Aaron's personal battle? First, his battle helps us understand Deleuze, associating the darker side of what the philosopher teaches with the premonitions of Kafka and Orwell, rehearsed in the context of the apostle by pharisaic politics and sophistry. Second, this gospel ministry is filled with martyrs who, imitating the apostle who sought to imitate Christ, endured their afflictions in love of those who can reach by faith their blessed hope - in this case, of eternal life in salvation by the vicarious sacrifice of Jesus Christ -, were sacrificed by the fury of pharisees, originals or imitators. Third, Aaron may not have supported the afflictions that came from him having mined what is prophesied in II Tm 4: 3-4, considering the way he participated in his own sacrifice, perhaps having before sought his hope in the humanist faith.
I finish writing this on the day of the ceremony in his memory held at the city where he lived and where he sacrificed himself. City that humanist tradition likes to think is today the headquarters of its farm of dreams, a city whose history is linked to the chosen people who received the life of Aaron, by which he has given us his legacy. As the veil on this chosen people has not yet been lifted for the second coming of the Messiah, Aaron's legacy reminds us of another message from apostle Paul, this to the Romans: "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose." (Rom. 8:28) Then perhaps when that veil is lifted, Aaron's legacy may contribute to his people recognizing the true blessed hope, in the glory of the eternal Son of God, who dwelt among us as prophesied.

The Author

Pedro Antonio Dourado de Rezende is a tenured professor at the Computer Science Department, University of Brasilia (UnB), Brazil. Advanced to Candidacy for PhD in Applied Mathematics from University of California at Berkeley in 1983. Council member of the Brazilian Institute for Informatics Law and Policy (IBDI). Former Council member of the Free Software Foundation Latin America (FSFLA), and of Brazil's Public Key Infrasctructure Steering Committee (ICP-Brasil).


Pedro A D Rezende, 2013:  This work is published, as it could not be otherwise since a tribute to Aaron Swartz, under a Creative Commons license. The license at