Petition seeks removal of Swartz prosecutor Ortiz

Whitehouse.gov petition gets almost 40,000 signatures in four-plus days; beats deadline for increased threshold so White House must respond

A petition posted on whitehouse.gov that seeks the removal of U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, who oversaw the prosecution of Internet activist and pioneer Aaron Swartz on hacking-related charges, is nearing 40,000 signatures.

Under the so-called "We the People" program, the White House will respond to any petition started before today that gains at least 25,000 signatures. The petition drive was launched on Jan. 12, a day after Swartz committed suicide.

The White House today raised the threshold from 25,000 signatures to 100,000 signatures in 30 days for any new petitions because response to the program "has exceeded our wildest expectations."

The petition seeks the removal of Ortiz from her post in Massachusetts because its backers contend she "overreached" in the Swartz case.

"A prosecutor who does not understand proportionality and who regularly uses the threat of unjust and overreaching charges to extort plea bargains from defendants regardless of their guilt is a danger to the life and liberty of anyone who might cross her path," the petition claimed.

The petition was launched on Jan. 12 and had received about 37,000 signatures as of early Wednesday afternoon.

Many believe that the 26-year old Swartz was driven to suicide by fears that he would have to spend decades in prison on the hacking charges brought against him by Ortiz.

Swartz was indicted on 13 counts of felony hacking and wire fraud related to the alleged theft of millions of documents from JSTOR, an online library of literary journals and scholarly documents sold by subscription to universities and other institutions.

The indictment charged that Swartz violated were tied to allegations that he violated parts of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), a stringent federal anti-hacking statute that provides for prison terms ranging from five years to life in prison for felony violations.

Prosecutors claimed that Swartz, while a Fellow at Harvard University, misused his guest access privileges on neighboring Massachusetts Institute of Technology's network to illegally access and download over two million documents from JSTOR.

In court documents, prosecutors portrayed Swartz as an individual who went to considerable lengths to access the documents.

Prosecutors say Swartz broke into a utility closet at MIT to surreptitiously connect his computer to the university's network. Swartz hid his face behind a bicycle helmet whenever he accessed the closet, and used automated scripts to download more documents that he was allowed to, the court papers say.

In addition, Swartz repeatedly took steps to thwart JSTOR's attempts to block his downloads, the papers say.

Swartz contended that he took the documents to make them freely available to everyone online via file-sharing sites.

Countless supporters argue that while Swartz' actions may have been misguided, they did not merit the charges leveled against him by prosecutors. His backers say the charges filed by prosecutors, and potential jail time Swartz faced if found guilty, were onerous for what they call a minor infraction.

Swartz's death has galvanized calls for a review of how prosecutors interpret the CFAA law.

Several legal experts have said that overzealous prosecutors misuse the law to prosecute individuals for violating relatively minor crimes, such as ignoring a website user agreements or terms of service agreements.

Some experts note that the CFAA's references to "unauthorized access" and "exceeding authorized access" apply specifically to malicious hacking incidents and not to situations where someone with legitimate access to a system might misuse that access to misappropriate data.

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

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