MIT gunman hoax linked to Aaron Swartz’s suicide, according to top school official

The unknown caller who made unfounded claims that a gunman was on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s campus last weekend said the target was the university’s president and that he was motivated by the suicide of web activist Aaron Swartz, according to a letter from a top MIT official.

In the note to the MIT community, Israel Ruiz, the school’s executive vice president and treasurer, addressed the hoax, the police response, and what is next for the institution.

“At 7:35 AM, the caller identified MIT President Rafael Reif as the target and said that the alleged gunman was heading towards the administration offices,” wrote Ruiz. “At 7:37 AM, the caller indicated that the alleged gunman was retaliating against people involved in the suicide of Aaron Swartz.”

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A spokesman from MIT, as well as the Cambridge police, confirmed on Wednesday that the caller stated that Swartz’s death was the motivation behind the hoax.

Ruiz also acknowledged that the school should have been quicker to alert the campus.

“We should have alerted the community about the threat much more quickly and that the communication protocols we had in place did not meet the community’s reasonable expectations,” wrote Ruiz.

The fake call came into Cambridge police at about 7:30 a.m. on Feb. 23. The caller, still unknown to authorities, used a Sprint relay message service, which is designed for people with hearing or speech impediments, and talked with a dispatcher for more than 18 minutes, the letter said.

“One minute into the communication, the caller reported someone with a ‘really big gun,’ and ‘armor’ who was ‘getting out of control,’ ” Ruiz wrote. “Within two minutes of being notified, the first MIT Police units entered Building 7.”

Ruiz commended the police response to the incident, but said the university has revised its communication procedures so alerts can be sent out to the community within minutes.

The Globe reported this week that the FBI and Secret Service confirmed on Monday that they have joined the Cambridge and MIT police departments to help investigate the incident.

Swartz, a web entrepreneur and political activist who was charged with hacking into MIT’s network and mass downloading millions of documents from a subscription-based archive, committed suicide in January. In the weeks since, MIT’s computer systems have been hacked several times in an apparent protest by activists upset about the death and the efforts to prosecute him.

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