Jacob Appelbaum

WikiLeaks, Tor, and defender of privacy
Jacob Appelbaum


When you’re as smart as Jacob Appelbaum, there’s no need to limit yourself to just one profession.

How about a web browser that improves privacy for every Internet user? Here’s the .
Jacob Appelbaum Overview ‧ read
Perhaps an educational hacking group, intended for public benefit? That’s Noisebridge . How about a spot of journalism, to help expose the NSA’s mass surveillance? Easy… Appelbaum did it all.

There’s not much Appelbaum hasn’t done. He has been a spokesperson for WikiLeaks, worked for Greenpeace and, in September 2015, he began a PhD course at Eindhoven University of Technology.

Jacob Appelbaum is really, really smart and he’s an important defender of our Internet privacy and freedoms.

Appelbaum from an early age

Appelbaum didn’t get off to the most stable or conventional start in life. He told Rolling Stone magazine : “I come from a family of lunatics. Actual, raving lunatics.”

Appelbaum’s mother suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, so his aunt took custody of him from the age of six. That didn’t work out and from age eight, he lived at a children’s home in Sonoma County, California.

Saved by the internet - saves the internet

It was while living at the children’s home that Appelbaum first hacked a security system. Another boy taught him how to dust a keypad lock for fingerprints, get the PIN, and escape the building.

Appelbaum’s father took custody of him two years later. But he still hadn’t found a stable home, as his dad was a heroin addict. Things finally got better for Appelbaum when a friend’s father introduced him to programming. With programming and hacking, he had found his true purpose.

In his own words, “The world was not a lost place. The Internet is the only reason I'm alive today.”

Iraq’s one-man internet task force

Jacob Appelbaum was lucky to discover the Internet. And it was great for the rest of us that he did. After starting on his path as a hacker and developer, Appelbaum was soon making waves on the Internet.

In 2003, at age 18, he already worked as a computer security expert for Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network. Two years later, Appelbaum took on a much more dangerous and selfless project - he traveled alone to Kurdistan, Iraq to set up satellite Internet connections in the region.

After Hurricane Katrina, Appelbaum also traveled to New Orleans , where he set up Wi-Fi hotspots in the poorest neighborhoods.

Appelbaum joins the Tor development team

After returning to California, Appelbaum became interested in privacy issues when he discovered the Bay Area Transit System was storing passengers’ personal data without consent .

Appelbaum would go on to join the Tor development team as a developer, advocate, and security researcher. An acronym of ‘the onion network,’ Tor is a web browser that enables anonymous Internet use by directing net traffic through a network of encrypted relays.

Appelbaum has said of Tor:
“Tor is part of an ecosystem of software that helps people regain and reclaim their autonomy… It runs, it is open and it is supported by a large community spread across all walks of life.”

WikiLeaks work makes Appelbaum a surveillance target

Appelbaum actively exposes secret government activities, including attacks on Internet privacy. In 2010, he stood in for WikiLeaks founder as a keynote speaker at the HOPE hacker conference in New York.

In January, 2011, it was revealed that the US Department of Justice forced Twitter to share user information about WikiLeaks members. As a key member of WikiLeaks, Appelbaum had become a target of the surveillance forces that he had worked so hard to expose.

Edward Snowden’s NSA leak confidant

A brush with the US government didn’t put Jacob off privacy activism, however. As prepared to leak secret documents that exposed the NSA’s mass surveillance, he made Appelbaum a key confidant.

Appelbaum appeared in person at the 2013 Chaos Communications Conference in Hamburg, Germany. He revealed to the world how the NSA’s powers are “even worse than your worst nightmares”, highlighting their ability to and steal data from offline computers.

Appelbaum in Berlin

Increasingly a target for US intelligence services - who detained him at borders and seized his computer - Appelbaum moved to Berlin in 2013.

In late 2015, Appelbaum began studying for his PhD under fellow security experts Daniel J. Bernstein and Tanja Lange. With people like that working together, who knows what they will come up with next?

An online privacy champion against all odds

Whatever your impression of Jacob Appelbaum, it’s hard to deny his life has been eventful. Despite the most difficult childhood, Appelbaum found a way out through hacking and the Internet. Then he used his skills for the benefit of everyone.

He’s been at the forefront of some of the most significant online freedom stories of the past few years, from WikiLeaks to the NSA leaks - and he’s still in his early 30s. Whatever happens next, it’s sure to be enthralling.

Featured image: “Jacob Appelbaum at a talk at 30C3 in Hamburg (2013)” by Tobias Klenze is licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.