The co-founder of online news site Reddit has been charged with computer intrusion, fraud and data theft for allegedly stealing 4.8 million documents from an MIT network, the US Department of Justice said.

In an indictment unsealed Tuesday, Aaron Swartz, 24, was charged with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer and recklessly damaging a protected computer.

If convicted, Swartz, who is also the founder of political advocacy group Demand Progress, faces a possible 35 years in prison and fines up to US$1 million.

Illegal access

Between September and January, Swartz allegedly contrived to break into a restricted computer wiring closet in an MIT basement, and access MIT's network from a computer switch there, the DOJ said in a press release. Swartz, a fellow at Harvard University's Center for Ethics, targeted documents provided to MIT by Journal Storage (JSTOR), a non-profit archive of scientific journals and academic work, the DOJ alleged.

Swartz accessed the MIT network through the university's free guest network service, the indictment said. When MIT and JSTOR attempted to block access from Swartz's laptop, he changed the IP address and spoofed the computer's MAC address to get continued access, the indictment says. He registered for network access using a throwaway email address, the DOJ said.

In October, Swartz connected a second laptop to the network, according to the indictment. On October 9, the two laptops downloaded so many documents from JSTOR that some of the organisation's servers crashed, the indictment said.

Swartz, through Harvard, already had access to JSTOR articles, the DOJ said. JSTOR restricts some downloads and gives users access only for their personal use, the DOJ said.

JSTOR has archived and digitised more than 1,000 academic journals. Swartz intended to distribute the documents he stole on file sharing networks, the indictment alleged.

"Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars," said Carmen Ortiz, US attorney. "It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away."

Charges questioned

Demand Progress, founded late last year to campaign for digital rights, questioned the arrest.

"As best as we can tell, he is being charged with allegedly downloading too many scholarly journal articles from the qeb," the group said on its blog. "The government contends that downloading said articles is actually felony computer hacking and should be punished with time in prison."

JSTOR has settled its claims against Swartz, said David Segal, Demand Progress' executive director. "This makes no sense," Segal said. "It's like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library. It's even more strange because JSTOR has settled any claims against Aaron, explained they've suffered no loss or damage, and asked the government not to prosecute."

JSTOR declined to comment on the charges, but said the downloads were "unauthorised." The DOJ is not aware that any personal identifying information was stolen from JSTOR, the agency said.

Swartz previously wrote the Wikipedia analysis, "Who Writes Wikipedia?" He also co-authored the RSS 1.0 specification, and has served on the board of Change Congress, a government reform group, according to his website.