The Secret Service's files on deceased cyber-activist Aaron Swartz must be made public, a judge ruled Friday.


U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly issued her ruling in response to a lawsuit filed by Wired reporter Kevin Poulsen, who is investigating the reasons for the heavy-handed prosecution that spurred Swartz to commit suicide.

Swartz, who helped create the first RSS protocol at age 14 and co-founded the popular websites Reddit and Demand Progress, was charged in 2011 of stealing data from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology after he accessed a secure database of academic papers.

Prosecutors threatened him with up to 30 years in prison, and Swartz committed suicide by hanging in January, at just 26 years old. His family later blamed "prosecutorial overreach" for Swartz's suicide and blasted MIT for failing to stand up for one of its brightest students.

Poulsen was quick to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), hoping to learn what exactly the Secret Service dredged up on Swartz during its investigation. That FOIA request was denied in February, so Poulsen sued.

The judge wrote Friday that the DHS has until August 5 to explain how long it will take to release its trove of files on Swartz, in accordance with FOIA law. "You'll see there here when I get them," Poulsen writes.

As a result of Swartz's suicide, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced bills last month that would clarify the difference between accessing information without permission and actually committing a cyber crime, a nuance they said is lacking in current law.

“The result is a proposal that we believe, if enacted into law, safeguards commonplace online activity from overbroad prosecution and overly harsh penalties, while ensuring that real harmful activity is discouraged and fully prosecuted,” Wyden and Lofgren wrote in Wired. “The law must separate its treatment of everyday Internet activity from criminals intent on causing serious damage to financial, social, civic, or security institutions.”

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[Photo: Wikimedia Commons]