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FBI Investigates Liberator of Court Records 445

Posted by timothy
from the stop-doing-our-job-better-than-we-can dept.
eldavojohn writes "Federal court documents aren't free to the public, they cost $0.08/page through a system called PACER. During a period when the US Government Printing Office was trying out free access at a number of courthouses around the US, a 22-year-old programmer named Aaron Swartz installed a small PERL script at the 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals library in Chicago — a script that uploaded a public document every three seconds to Amazon's EC2 cloud computing service. Swartz then donated over 19 million documents to public.resource.org. That's when the FBI took interest in the programmer responsible for this effort and ran his name through government databases. How did he discover this? His FOIA was approved, of course, and he received the FBI's partially redacted report on himself. The public.resource.org database was later merged with that of the RECAP Firefox extension, which we discussed a couple of months back." Update: 10/06 18:22 GMT by KD: Timothy Lee pointed out that the summary as originally posted garbled the Swartz / RECAP connection. Improved now.
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FBI Investigates Liberator of Court Records

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  • by PunditGuy (1073446) on Tuesday October 06, 2009 @10:35AM (#29656869)
    Man makes public documents available, for free, to the public. Obviously, this sort of thing cannot be allowed to continue.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 06, 2009 @10:42AM (#29656989)

      'Cept they (gummint) closed the case, meaning they couldn't make anything stick.

      The good thing here is that the gummint realized that this guy did nothing wrong, and their 27, 8x10, color glossy photographs with the circles and arrows, and a paragraph on the back of each one, weren't going to be of any use.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Did you miss the part about installing (presumably non-permitted) software on a court computer?

    • by CharlyFoxtrot (1607527) on Tuesday October 06, 2009 @11:29AM (#29657687)

      From the file :

      "PACER normally carries an eight cents per page fee, however, by accessing from one of the seventeen libraries, users may search and download data for free.

      Between September 4, 2008 and September 22, 2008, PACER was accessed by computers from outside the library utilizing login information from two libraries participating in the pilot project. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts reported that the PACER system was being inundated with requests. One request was being made every three seconds.

      [â¦] The two accounts were responsible for downloading more than eighteen million pages with an approximate value of $1.5 million."

      So he used a login (which wasn't registered in his name according to the report) to access files from a location not supposed to be used by those logins to download so many documents it began to look like a DOS attack. I'd say the FBI are correct to at least investigate.

      • by PitaBred (632671) <slashdotNO@SPAMpitabred.dyndns.org> on Tuesday October 06, 2009 @12:41PM (#29658641) Homepage
        The main problem I have with that is the "approximate value of $1.5 million".

        That is not their value. That is their price. Very different concepts. In a free society, they have much value, but shouldn't have a price. It's information every citizen should have access to.
  • retaliation (Score:5, Insightful)

    by yincrash (854885) on Tuesday October 06, 2009 @10:35AM (#29656871)
    if you look too closely at the gov't, they'll look too closely at you.
    • Re: (Score:2, Offtopic)

      by Abstrackt (609015)
      Nice paraphrase of Nietzsche.
    • Re:retaliation (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Shakrai (717556) on Tuesday October 06, 2009 @11:07AM (#29657385) Journal

      if you look too closely at the gov't, they'll look too closely at you.

      Oh please. Put the tinfoil hat away. If this was 'retaliation' I suspect that it would have gone a lot further than an investigation that was closed after concluding that no laws were broken. Did he really expect the FBI not to take an interest in him after he installed his own code on a Government computer? Frankly I'd be worried if they didn't take an interest when some IT person notices a script running on a Government computer that's uploading hundreds of thousands of documents.

    • by ignavus (213578)

      if you look too closely at the gov't, they'll look too closely at you.

      It is not fair. They have more eyes.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by pluther (647209)

        It is not fair. They have more eyes.

        No they don't. We have far, far more eyes than they can ever hope for.

        It just seems like they have more because they're more willing to use them.

  • by langelgjm (860756) on Tuesday October 06, 2009 @10:36AM (#29656881) Journal

    Seriously, as far as I know, all this material is a matter of public record anyway. It should already be freely available. I've used bulk.resource.org primarily to read opinions of appeals court cases, and it's fantastic to have all that information freely available online. The FBI should be investigating the turrurists instead.

    Moral of the story is that if you don't pay 8 cent duplication fees and you know how to use PERL the FBI could come a knockin'?

    • Re: (Score:2, Redundant)

      by DaveV1.0 (203135)

      You mean like investigating the installation of unauthorized software on a federal government computer?

      Oh wait....

    • by natehoy (1608657) on Tuesday October 06, 2009 @12:13PM (#29658295) Journal

      Well, it all depends. The information is "freely" available as in "free as in speech". You can go on PACER any time you want and download anything you want.

      However, PACER itself is not (or at least not fully) tax-funded, so it's not "free as in beer". There is a user fee involved if you want to download the originals off the PACER system, which funds the system and makes the documents accessible. Once you have a copy of a document, you are free to do anything you want with it including share the document with anyone you want, which is why groups like RECAP can re-share any documents they've paid for or had donated to them.

      This one is an interesting case, because the library access was initially set up so people could do free searches for small numbers of records, expecting a small number of hits. When the number of hits started skyrocketing, the government got suspicious as to who was collecting all of the documents and why. The FBI started an investigation, and it sounds like they discovered that nothing illegal was going on after all and dropped it. I'd say the number of hits on the system was enough to raise suspicion and justify a further look into what was going on, but that's one man's opinion.

      While I applaud Aaron's efforts on behalf of RECAP, the net result was the publication of a few million files (good) and the shutting down of the free access to PACER at libraries due to what PACER obviously thought of as abuse (not so good).

      If everyone expects/gets access to all PACER documents for free, then there won't be any money going into PACER to pay to scan the documents, organize them, and make them available. Then PACER will either cease to exist, or require additional taxpayer funding to continue since they won't be making any funds from user fees.

      I'm not saying that complete taxpayer funding is a BAD idea, only that it is not how PACER is funded at this time. RECAP's initial approach was to collect donations to get "first copies" of a bunch of records from PACER then make them freely available to all (or to ask people to donate "first copies" they'd already purchased). So PACER was making revenue, and everyone was happy.

  • by bluefoxlucid (723572) on Tuesday October 06, 2009 @10:37AM (#29656901) Journal
    The Schwartz makes anything possible!
  • by FrozenGeek (1219968) on Tuesday October 06, 2009 @10:39AM (#29656929)
    Install unauthorized software on a government, or business, computer anywhere and see what sort of response you get. This fellow installed an unauthorized perl script on a computer in a federal court (okay, the library thereof). I'm not surprised that the government decided to take a look at things. I'd be disappointed if they had not done so. DUH.
    • by dwillden (521345) on Tuesday October 06, 2009 @10:48AM (#29657077) Homepage
      I agree. And I have a hard time seeing what the big deal about this is anyway. So they investigated. No charges were filed.

      End story: The FBI was doing it's job to ensure a crime wasn't being committed, when something unexpected was occuring on a government computer system.
    • by chrb (1083577) on Tuesday October 06, 2009 @11:13AM (#29657483)

      Install unauthorized software on a government

      Didn't RTFA eh? What he actually did was access the PACER database using the username/password of the library from his Amazon IP address. One request every 3 seconds (which apparently counts as "inundated"), worth an imaginary $1.5 million. So they investigate the IP address, Amazon helpfully coughs up all the accounts details, with the name they find his web page and from Accurint get his social security number and other details, then gain access to his LinkedIn and Facebook accounts, drivers license, drive by his house and get photos (they suggest surveillance will be difficult), then he gets interviewed by the New York Times [slashdot.org]. After all that, they drop the case.

      Possibly the best quote from the FBI: AARON SWARTZ would have known his access was unauthorized because it was with a password that did not belonged to him.

      • by chrb (1083577)

        Ok, there is conflicting information here. Swartz says he ran the script only on the library computer. The FBI report states PACER was accessed by computers from outside the library utilizing login information from two libraries participating in the pilot project.

    • Install unauthorized software on a government, or business, computer anywhere and see what sort of response you get. This fellow installed an unauthorized perl script on a computer in a federal court (okay, the library thereof). I'm not surprised that the government decided to take a look at things. I'd be disappointed if they had not done so. DUH.

      Two points, how in Hades is there a government computer accessible to the public that a random person can install software on?
      The second point is that I agree that I would expect the government to investigate someone who did someone like this even if it wasn't done from a government computer. However, this investigation was a bit of overkill, not a lot, but a bit. Run his name through the various federal databases to see what turns up, sure. Check for outstanding warrants and prior convictions, sure. Check

  • by MikeRT (947531) on Tuesday October 06, 2009 @10:40AM (#29656945) Homepage

    Congress could easily allocate enough money to make PACER a free service, maybe even get some contractors to write a solid web service API so government agencies and the public could easily access the service.

    But they don't... because in so many cases they want the public to pay for services like this out of pocket so that they have revenue to spend on others.

    It disgusts me that on the local level, there's money for welfare programs and all sorts of other crap, but no money to actually pay for a full-time fire fighting service in most communities.

    The public really needs to demand that core services (defense, police, fire fighters, courts, transportation) be funded first and funded generously, and that the social services be funded with the scraps that are left over from the core budget and user fees.

    • by b4dc0d3r (1268512)

      I would put things in a different order - education being first. Others would have their own order. I know something needs to be changed, but who decides?

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by kimvette (919543)

      "social services" really ought to be handled by private organizations like they used to. The government ought to stick to protecting the borders, punishing evildoers (you know, like rapists and murderers and burglars, not "criminals" like stoners and crack heads), and maybe building roads. That's it. Then, the budget problems would go away, and there would be no need for oppressive taxes. Everything can then be funded through import tariffs.

      Hey, why didn't our founding fathers consider that? Oh right, that

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        "social services" really ought to be handled by private organizations like they used to. The government ought to stick to protecting the borders, punishing evildoers (you know, like rapists and murderers and burglars, not "criminals" like stoners and crack heads), and maybe building roads. That's it. Then, the budget problems would go away, and there would be no need for oppressive taxes. Everything can then be funded through import tariffs.

        Hey, why didn't our founding fathers consider that? Oh right, that's what they intended in the first place.

        Many if yur founding fathers didn't have a problem with slavery, either, and in this "golden age of liberty" that you describe, being poor didn't mean having to eat in McDonalnds - it meant not having to eat at all, and dying from starvation or disease if you don't have the cash (and surprisingly many people didn't).

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by sjames (1099)

        Consider, for someone who is homeless and starving or in desperate need of medical care, if there are no social welfare programs their most logical course of action is to steal whatever they need. If they get away with it, fine. If not then you WILL be supporting them with your tax dollars to the tune of $60,000/year space in jail. Or you could have spent $20,000 and potentially ended up with a productive citizen or at least a 66% reduction in the cost of an unproductive citizen.

        Another portion of social we

      • by amplt1337 (707922) on Tuesday October 06, 2009 @03:34PM (#29661569) Journal

        bleeding hearts are responsible for the national debt

        Actually, you're wrong. [zfacts.com]

        "social services" really ought to be handled by private organizations like they used to.

        You might want to do some research on the 1880s, and how effectively social services were handled by private organizations back then. Protip: they weren't handled at all. People died in the streets in massive numbers.

        Most of the cries of "ooh big government! big government!" that people love to wave around come from an ignorance of how important government programs are to maintaining social order and a modicum of well-being for poor people. Well, that and a gross misconception of how much of the federal purse is spent on social programs, versus the things that the libertarians actually think are worthwhile. (We could just as easily cut almost all of our defense spending, since it's pretty much worthless).

    • by jbeach (852844)
      I think the public understands core services just fine. They just consider "social services" which feed kids and families and support the disadvantaged to be a core service.
    • I love to use my local city, Atlanta, as an example of what is so wrong with government.

      When faced with a budget shortfall what got cut? Firefighters and policemen. In fact they went after the stations in areas of most resistance to new taxation.

      What was kept? The over loaded with cronies corrupt city hall. Oh, they went after teachers too and kept the huge administrative sections of the school system; again stuffed with friends.

      The larger system is just the same.

      Instead now its all about how much of so

    • by circletimessquare (444983) <circletimessquare AT gmail DOT com> on Tuesday October 06, 2009 @11:30AM (#29657703) Homepage Journal

      false dichotomies, misrepresented reality, etc.

      nobody in their right mind is thinking of shortchanging something like defense spending for the sake of welfare recipients. this never enters into any governmental spending calculus as it is blindingly obvious something like police are more important to absolutely everyone involved in decision making. if spending is not at the level you think it should be, it has to do with someone thinking less is needed for that particular spending allotment, in a vacuum of any other consideration, not because someone needs a battered women's shelter instead. you present a false choice in your comment that never exists in the real world

      furthermore social services are a bargain: every dollar spent on welfare and healthcare and other social services is one less guy breaking into your house or mugging you on the street, because they can't feed their kids, or because they can't keep their job with a broken arm (that they can't afford to fix). it's cheaper to fix their arm. you will pay for social services one way or another. the idea of not spending on healthcare for the poor means the problem just goes away is ignorance: every untreated case of diabetes winding up in the emergency room, every case of tuberculosis untreated resulting in your children catching it, every untreated case of hypertension resulting in a heart attack for the family breadwinner who now leaves a familty to fend on their own: you pay for that in the form of a sick society, and that affects your bottom line and the balance in your checking account, whether you are blind to how you are not an island in this world or not

      when you live in a rich society, you in turn are rich. when you live a poor society you in turn are poor. the money that exists in your pocket is not something devoid of any relationship to everything around you, the money in your pocket is abstract expression of the wealth around you. you pay for basic simple social services, or the money in your pocket is worth less and is less in quantity. that you can't see that is a defect in your perception. unfortunately, so many people take this defect in perception as the basis for an entire philosophy of life that assumes they exist apart from their society

      it isn't about individual responsibility and self-initiative, and those who don't have that having less socioeconomic status then you, it isn't about rewarding the undeserving. it is about giving the genuinely undeserving the bottom of the basement standard of living, so they don't wind up a cancer in your society that rots your entire society, which in turn impoverishes you. think of social services as an investment that pays dividends that are indirect. apparently beyond your ability to understand. and not making that investment resulting in the loss of far more of your money than you spend on basic social services

      the idea is freedom right? freedom from poverty deciding issues of basic human dignity right? oh yeah... durrr...

      but you shouldn't respond to me, you should get into politics. listen to any senator arguing out of ignorant resistance to change, and we see exactly the same sort of false choices and red herrings. you have a bright future in ignorant ideological grandstanding and fearmongering: go for it dude

  • Bad English (Score:4, Informative)

    by AlterRNow (1215236) on Tuesday October 06, 2009 @10:40AM (#29656947)

    AARON SWARTZ would have known his access was unauthorized because it was with a password that did not belonged to him.

    Proof-reading. A valuable tool.

  • ((((19,856,160 x 3 sec)/60 sec)/60 min)/24 hours)/365 days = 1.9 years

    entirely doable

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Not quite.

      Document != page

      19,856,160 pages at 3 seconds per court document.

      I expect many (most?) of those court documents are multi-page documents.

    • by Nyall (646782)

      The article isn't clear, but I would assume that there are multiple terminals he could have installed this script on.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by demonbug (309515)

        Tough to tell from the article, but it sounds like he didn't actually install a script on the terminals. Sounds like he copied the information (cookie?) from a couple of terminals that had access to the retrieval system, then used that login/cookie information to run a script on Amazon's cloud service that sent a request every 3 seconds using the authorization from the terminal(s). Hence the comment in the FBI file that he should have known it was illegal because he didn't own the account he used to access

  • What the /. summary doesn't say is that Aaron used a user name and password of the library to run his script from an outside location. I would guess the FBI closed the case because 1) he got a lawyer and and refused the interview. 2) most likely the librarian had lax password handling that didn't specifically say he shouldn't have use it at home.

    On the other hand if he did something like grab the password from a config file or unencode a URL with the credentials embedded I wouldn't feel bad if he landed i

  • I want to go on state red full-on black helicopter paranoia rant, but before that, can someone tell how probable/unusual for FBI to look into your record, say, in comparison to a no-name newspaper reporter, for example.
  • by noidentity (188756) on Tuesday October 06, 2009 @10:48AM (#29657075)

    His FOIA was approved, of course, and he received the FBI's partially redacted report on himself.

    So, did he have a script that automatically uploaded this FOIA on himself to a public server?

    • by omega_dk (1090143)

      Maybe not a script, but the information received minus a few redactions the government made are available in the last link, and being information created by the government is not bound by copyright and you may feel free to do with it what you will.

  • Inquire Within (Score:4, Interesting)

    by MelloHippo (607765) on Tuesday October 06, 2009 @11:00AM (#29657279)
    I wonder if the mere act of requesting your FBI file will cause them to open one. I'm sure it must be of interest to the Bureau that somebody is curious what the FBI has on them.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 06, 2009 @11:08AM (#29657405)

    Pacer is worse than presented. Itâ(TM)s not just 8 cents a page for downloaded, itâ(TM)s 8 cents a page for any page you pull into your browser. They consider any Web page you surf on their site in search of the legal document to be a âoedownloadedâ document.
    I work at a newspaper and one of my reporters ran up a $250 bill with Pacer checking many times a day to see if an important local opinion were issued. When it was, it was just 4 pages long; I expected to pay 32 cents. Instead they said we owed over $250. We never paid it and consequently no longer use Pacer.

  • PERL! (Score:3, Informative)

    by spottedkangaroo (451692) * on Tuesday October 06, 2009 @11:10AM (#29657437) Homepage
    Perl is only an acronym in certain contexts and PERL is a shibboleth! Fortunately, you can load PERL with this module: http://search.cpan.org/perldoc?Inline::PERL [cpan.org]
  • by MarkvW (1037596) on Tuesday October 06, 2009 @12:42PM (#29658657)

    PACER has a little RECAP warning (at least as of last week). I forget most of it, but part of it warns users that it is open source and may contain bad software in it. I thought that was pretty funny.

    You get the sense that the judges don't like it one bit, but they are being very circumspect in their language.

    Maybe the judges are letting the FBI do their talking for them . . .

  • by bugs2squash (1132591) on Tuesday October 06, 2009 @01:29PM (#29659543)
    it was a 1-line PERL script and the FBI and NSA are still trying to figure out everything it does.

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