The death of Internet activist Aaron Swartz has generated a lot of discussion about the power of prosecutors -- particularly federal prosecutors. This is a good thing. The conversation is long overdue. But the discussion needs to go well beyond Swartz and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
Prosecutors have enormous power. Even investigations that don't result in any charges can ruin lives, ruin reputations, and drive their targets into bankruptcy. It has become an overtly political position -- in general, but particularly at the federal level. If a prosecutor wants to ruin your life, he or she can. Even if you've done nothing wrong, there isn't a whole lot you can do about it.
There are a number of factors that got us here, and it's worth looking at them in turn.