The FBI sure is keeping us safe

This would be hilarious if it wasn’t so stupid: Wired reports that Web geek Aaron Swartz runs a PERL script to scrape all of the federal court documents off of PACER’s normally pay-as-you-go system and incurs an FBI investigation as a result.

Documents generally cost 8 cents apiece, but the Government Printing Office was experimenting with allowing unfettered access at a handful of libraries. Unfettered, that is, unless you’d rather download all of these public records than hunt and peck through PACER’s craptastic system.

…as the FBI report put it, the public records were “exfiltrated.”

The script ran for a couple of weeks — from September 4 to 22, until the court system’s IT department realized something was wrong. Someone was downloading everything. None of the records, of course, were private or sealed, and Lexis Nexis has a copy of of PACER’s database that it sells a high markup. But Swartz wasn’t paying anything.

The Government Printing Office abruptly shut down the free trial and reported to the FBI that PACER was “compromised,” the FBI file reveals. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts told the FBI in March that Swartz had gained unauthorized access to the free PACER account. (Wired)

The whole point of Swartz’s massive download was to put the records back where they belong — in the public domain.

If you’d like to support that cause, you can use the firefox plugin RECAP to donate your bought-and-paid-for PACER docs to, which is warehousing the liberated records.

Read the Wired article and don’t miss Swartz’s FBI file. Both explain the ridiculousness of the investigation. It’s clear from the language that the FBI was concerned not about a denial-of-service attack (the script sent a request for a new doc every three seconds), but about a guy who used public access to public records in a way not foreseen by the government and that was very very scary for them. The printing office ended its experiment with openness and transparency, because dammit, the feds like charging for public documents.

Guess that $150 million surplus feels pretty good. I wonder how much they spent on the investigation?

About the Author

grant smith
Hi. I’m a freelance journalist and data specialist living in NJ/NYC. I like to play outside.

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