Jacob Appelbaum

WikiLeaks, Tor, and defender of privacy
Jacob Appelbaum

BIOGRAPHY SUMMARY

Jacob Appelbaum has made a name of himself as the only American working for WikiLeaks, a vocal advocate of the Tor Project, and a controversial harassment scandal that cost him his career.
Jacob Appelbaum Overview ‧ read

The early life of Jacob Appelbaum

Jacob Appelbaum was born on April 1, 1983, in the United States. When he was six years old, he was put into the custody of his aunt; two years later, he was put into a children’s home in California. He stayed at the home for two years until his father was granted custody of him, despite his father’s heroin addiction. A friend of his father introduced Jacob to electronics, computers, and the internet, which according to Jacob, saved his life.

Shortly after starting and abandoning college to “continue his education”, Appelbaum moved to Oakland at the age of 20 and began his work as a technologist and activist with the Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace.

Appelbaum is often described as healthily paranoid; many people who meet him for the first time are shocked by the extent to which he maintains anonymity. According to Rolling Stone, he has his mail delivered to a virtual office, pays everything in cash, uses a different email address every time he signs up for an online service, and regularly uses over a dozen different cell phones throughout a day.

The founding of Noisebridge

In 2007, Appelbaum co-founded the anarchistic educational San Francisco hacking space Noisebridge with Mitch Altman, the inventor of TV-B-Gone, a universal remote control. From 2008, he was also a member of the Cult of the Dead Cow, a hacker collective credited with coining the term “31337”, referring to Eleet, now more commonly spelled 1337 and pronounced “Leet”.

Today Jacob Appelbaum is known primarily for two projects he was closely involved in: WikiLeaks and the Tor Project.

Involvement in WikiLeaks

Appelbaum was the only American member of WikiLeaks. He worked on the WikiLeaks software, ensured the security and anonymity of its members, and became one of the leading public figures and advocates for the platform, speaking at dozens of conferences and giving countless interviews.

At the time, Appelbaum lived in Berlin, as did other prominent anti-surveillance activists, like Sarah Harrison and Laura Poitras.

His involvement in WikiLeaks landed him in the crosshairs of U.S. law enforcement. Between 2009 and 2013, Appelbaum was repeatedly harassed and had his devices seized at U.S. airports, often for hours at a time. The U.S. government obtained a sealed court order that forced Twitter to hand over all the information they had on him. At one point, Jacob Appelbaum suspected American agents had broken into his apartment in Berlin.

Work on the Tor Project

In the public eye, Appelbaum was known primarily for his role at the Tor Project, where he was formally employed and received a salary from 2008 until his resignation in 2016. He was one of the project’s most vocal and visible personalities.

Jacob Appelbaum as a journalist

In 2013, when the Snowden leaks dominated the news cycle around the globe, Jacob Appelbaum worked as a journalist for the German weekly magazine Der Spiegel exposing limitless cases of U.S. surveillance of the European people and their leaders.

For Der Spiegel’s work covering the Snowden leaks, Appelbaum and his team earned the Henri-Nannen-Preis, a prestigious German journalism award.

Assault allegations and aftermath

After being suspended from his position at the Tor Project in 2015 for sexual misconduct (link in German), Jacob Appelbaum had to step down from many of the positions he held in summer 2016 as multiple individuals came forward with details of abuse and assault.

The Tor Project, Freedom of the Press Foundation, Noisebridge, Chaos Computer Club, Debian, and Cult of the Dead Cow all publicly distanced themselves from Appelbaum, revoking his membership and barring him from their events.

The controversy has affected not only Appelbaum, but also the tight-knit information security community as a whole. The community, which prides itself on fighting for equality and injustice everywhere, failed to spot serious misconduct in their midst for years and take appropriate actions to address it. The community has since been searching its own soul, and promised to implement better safeguards to protect the vulnerable among it.

Jacob Appelbaum today

Jacob Appelbaum is currently pursuing his PhD in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at the University of Eindhoven, Netherlands.