Who is Jacob Appelbaum?

3 min read

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When it comes to digital anonymity and Internet privacy rights, names like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange get most of the press. But there are other players who are critical to the movement, like Jacob Appelbaum. Appelbaum is an independent journalist, hacker, and security expert who has also been the target of much government surveillance and cyber-intrusion. The experience prompted him to take up residence in Berlin and aid Snowden in the ongoing release of NSA documents. Unless you’re in the right circles, though, you might not know much about him. So who is Jacob Appelbaum, and what is his role in the digital privacy rights movement??

Making of the Man

According to an interview conducted by Esther Sassaman and originally posted at crypto.nsa.org, Appelbaum’s early life wasn’t exactly one of love and leisure. He described himself as moving from “home to home, parent to parent, starting at the age of 2 or 3.” His mother was a paranoid schizophrenic and his father had a serious drug addiction. He eventually ended up in the custody of his father, and the two forged a relationship Appelbaum described as “half distant and half closer that anyone could understand.”

Young Appelbaum found it difficult to “fit in” with normal society. A stolen computer, gifted from one of his father’s “friends”—transients and criminals who rented part of the Appelbaums’ living space to help make ends meet—was the turning point for Jacob, who used it as a way to “break the cycle of insanity.”

Stellar test scores in high school and A’s in junior college for hacking his professors’ computers under direct challenge gave Appelbaum hope of becoming an academic, but he didn’t really fit in with “the nerds detached from humanity.” When his father’s health took a turn for the worse, he quit school and moved back home. But by 2004 his father’s  addiction had become so all-consuming that Appelbaum moved out. Soon after, his father died. Alone and uncertain, he drifted north to Canada and then eventually into Europe, Turkey, and Iraq. Friends told him he “was going to die”, but instead he found kindred spirits and began challenging himself by heading into any dangerous situation he could, using his knowledge of computers and technology to aid those who needed help the most.

Not surprisingly, his course took him down a similar path to Snowden and Assange. He was a core member of the Tor project, represented WikiLeaks at the 2010 Hope Conference, and presented the Snowden documents at the Chaos Communication Congress which showed that the NSA could turn iPhones into eavesdropping tools.

The Google Issue

Of course, all this work prompted significant government interest in Appelbaum. He’s been detained several times and had equipment such as laptops and mobile phones seized by government agents. In addition, the United States Department of Justice obtained a warrant for data relating to his Twitter account in 2010 and demanded the court order sealed. Twitter successfully challenged the ruling and told Appelbaum, along with other activists, about the request, prompting significant backlash against the government.

According to new documents obtained by The Intercept, however, there’s more to the story. After the Twitter blow-up, the government also obtained a warrant for metadata relating to Appelbaum’s Gmail account, along with a gag order for Google. While the search giant tried to fight the order on several fronts, the government claimed that reasonable suspicion of data relating to their WikiLeaks investigation formed sufficient grounds for the warrant, and that the Twitter fiasco meant Google had to keep quiet. And they did—until the order was unsealed last week.

Privacy First

So what’s next for Appelbaum? As noted by Laptop Mag, he’s been brought on as a board adviser to secure laptop-maker Purism. Last year the company released a crowd-funded laptop with top-row function keys to disable Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, webcam and microphone features. Their new offering takes things a step further with physical kill switches that manually disable connectivity in the event of a suspected attack or possible surveillance. Appelbaum says he’s “really impressed” with Purism’s vision, dedication to using free software, and their emphasis on privacy.

So who is Jacob Appelbaum? He’s one of the most vocal and prolific allies of the digital privacy movement. He’s fought step by step and day by day, come under fire for what he believes in and what he writes, but remains a champion of our digital privacy rights..


Featured image: Wikipedia / Tobias Klenze / CC-BY-SA 3.0 (image has been cropped)

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