It started out as such a friendly joke: A couple of MIT sophomores sent a fake email around the university dormitories late last night, posing as the school's president and announcing classes were cancelled Wednesday because of threats related to the Aaron Swartz case. But this is the Aaron Swartz case, where nothing is friendly and everyone takes sides.
The MIT Tech reports that the email (pictured at right), running on a script to send itself at 1 a.m. Wednesday morning, was fitted with fancy letterhead from the office of MIT president L. Rafael Reif, and appeared to come from his personal address to the school-wide "allmit" address. The email announced classes would be cancelled today because of "threatening requests" the school received related to the Swartz case. On Tuesday, Reif announced that MIT would release its evidence relating to the case, which led to yet another emotional response from Swartz's family, friends, and legions of followers. So at first some students believed the report — it was late at night, and the president of the school had been sending around big letters about Swartz earlier in the day, and Swartz-related threats were not new since his suicide. But after a tech glitch caused the email to be sent out repeatedly over the course of the morning, it became clear the note was only sent to the dorm email lists, and not the entire university system. Something was amiss.
Turns out the hoax was actually the work of Delian Asparouhov, a sophomore and web developer who's probably not having such a great day today. He was "just a kid messing around," he told the Tech. As Asparouhov explains on his website, he was up late last night with his pals when a wager was put forth. "This prank all started as a simple argument between friends at 12:45 AM. I was trying to explain how email is a completely insecure protocol, and that it was very easy to spoof an email to be sent from anyone," he writes. "My friend didn't believe me and challenged me to send him an email as if it was President Reif."
"I decided to show my friend up and make it seem even more legitimate. I quickly pulled up a couple of President Reif's emails and stole his letterhead and a couple of sentences."
But then he Asparouhov sent the same email to all the dorms, and that's when things took on a life of their own. Asparouhov says he wasn't thinking about the gun-threat hoax that completely shut down the campus recently, or how it started with a Swartz threat — or even the implications of including Swartz's name in the email and what that would mean to a campus that has been turned upside-down since Swartz downloaded files from JSTOR on its servers two years ago, and killed himself in January.
Thing is, Asparouhov left the fake email script running and every time someone visited his server, a new fake email would be sent — the joke emails didn't stop. "By the time I managed to shut down the server and SIPB had reached out to me, over 120 spoofed emails had been sent," he says on his site.
But the severity of Asparouhov's dumb mistake was not was not lost on him: "I just wanted to make it clear that the email had no malicious intentions, but that I was being extremely childish," he says. "I'd like to apologize to President Reif and the entire MIT community. I deeply regret my actions earlier tonight." So, yes, this is a case of a tech bro who didn't think through the possible reactions to his trolling, but at least this guy seems to have realized how truly stupid his mistake was.
The Swartz case has been a particularly touchy subject at MIT. The school has faced heavy criticism from the Swartz camp since his suicide for not doing enough to support the hacker who broke into their servers and downloaded some harmless academic files. The school's offer yesterday to release their information related to his case was still met with guffaws from Swartz supporters. It is a touchy subject on the MIT campus, to say the least. Asparouhov wasn't thinking about that, though. He was just thinking about proving a point to his friend and playing a prank on the people he lived with.