MIT students receive hoax e-mail telling them classes are canceled; message cites ‘Aaron Swartz situation’

Many Massachusetts Institute of Technology students received a bogus e-mail early today that referred to the controversy over the late Internet activist Aaron Swartz and said classes had been canceled for the day, the university said.

The hoaxer quickly issued a lengthy public apology on the Internet.

The e-mail, which officials said went out shortly after 1 a.m., said MIT was taking an “important step ... relating to the Aaron Swartz situation,” according to a copy of the message posted by The Tech, the student newspaper.

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The e-mail, purportedly from MIT President L. Rafael Reif, also said in a passage whose wording wasn’t entirely clear that the university had “recieved [sic] several threatening requests from sources in the media.”

“Based on my initial reports, I believe it is best that we cancel classes for tomorrow,” the message continued.

MIT officials said that after they learned of the hoax, a university official e-mailed all students at 4 a.m. to notify them the e-mail was a fake and tell them that classes would be held as scheduled.

The student’s name was not released by officials. If MIT decides to take action against the student, all disciplinary action will be internal and confidential, MIT spokeswoman Kimberly Allen said.

Student Delian Asparouhov declined to comment this afternoon to the Globe about the hoax, but referred to a statement posted this morning on his webpage in which he admitted sending the e-mail and said his actions were “completely inappropriate.”

“This email produced fear and caused many people to be angry that someone would take such a serious matter so lightly. I’d like to apologize for the damage I caused to the MIT community, especially in light of the recent events that have caused large amounts of strife, which I only added to,” he said in the statement.

Asparouhov said the prank started as a late-night technical challenge among friends in which he was trying to show that it was very easy to send prank e-mails under other people’s names. He said that when he sent the blast of e-mails his “only thoughts” were that it would be “really funny” but that he quickly had misgivings.

“What started out as a way to prove a point, turned into a very very stupid email which was sent out to campus,” he said.

The hoax came just hours after Swartz’s father, Robert, called on the university to release all documents related to the federal case against his son, an Internet activist who committed suicide in January. Aaron Swartz was facing felony charges that he had hacked into an archive of academic journals on the university network.

His death has spurred criticism from Internet activists and civil libertarians who say he was a victim of overzealous prosecution.

In recent weeks, the university’s systems have been hacked at least three times. Last month, a hoax caller falsely reported there was a gunman on campus, saying he was retaliating for Swartz’s death.

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