MIT’s Mistake –One Man, One Life

A few years ago, MIT was reeling from student suicides, and publicly vowed to be better at protecting the nearly-grown children it educates. Last week, it took a dark step backwards, when 26-year-old Aaron Swartz, never a student, killed himself in what is widely perceived as his reaction to MIT’s decision to pursue cybercrime/hacking charges that it traced to him. (Penalties included more than $1 million in fines, and a likely jail term.)

No one’s disputing that the acts – trespassing, data theft, hacking – were linked to him.

But they’re also linked to MIT – and while this isn’t yet a full-blown media crisis, it could easily become one. This incident could also begin to undermine MIT’s brand as one of the purest bastions of academic liberty and freedom of information, the pursuit of technical truth, with a capital T.

Swartz, at 26, was considered one of the bright lights of the internet and a prominent digital rights activist.  He created what became the RSS feeds at age 14, and at the time of this event, was at Harvard, on a fellowship.

This kind of situation could occur at any company – and in many ways, MIT has shown it behaves like any other large organization. It needed to protect itself, and its assets. (It believed the hack was originating from China.) It adhered to protocol, which in this case, quickly accelerated to include the U.S. Secret Service, and the state’s Attorney General’s office.

For companies, this kind of error comes frighteningly close. It can occur with unfettered access to social media, and trying to fetter it. It can occur when employees are mishandled, and policies are miscommunicated.

Second-guessing is easy, and limitless.