Why is the US government so afraid of Jacob Appelbaum?

Julian Assange was set to speak at the The Next Hope hacker conference, New York in 2010:

“Hello to all my friends and fans in domestic and international surveillance” he began “I am here today because I believe we can make a better world. Julian, unfortunately, can’t make it, because we don’t live in that better world right now, because we haven’t yet made it. I wanted to make a little declaration for the federal agents that are standing in the back of the room and the ones that are standing in the front of the room, and to be very clear about this: I have, on me, in my pocket, some money, the Bill of Rights and a driver’s license, and that’s it. I have no computer system, I have no telephone, I have no keys, no access to anything. There’s absolutely no reason that you should arrest me or bother me. And just in case you were wondering, I’m an American, born and raised, who’s unhappy. I’m unhappy with how things are going.”

This is how Jacob Appelbaum introduced himself to the world. Appelbaum’s life is now defined by his defence of anonymity and for privacy in a social environment that is rapidly becoming more interconnected and less private.

Who is Jacob Appelbaum?

Appelbaum is a skilled hacker/security analyst. He works for the TOR (The Onion Router) project, a tool that allows the most secure means of communication currently available online, as a public spokesperson/evangelist for this movement, teaching political dissidents and human rights activists how to use Tor to prevent some of the world’s most repressive regimes from tracking their movements online. Explaining that “We have transferred our most intimate and personal information — our bank accounts, e-mails, photographs, phone conversations, medical records — to digital networks, trusting that it’s all locked away.”. Although the internet has been a vehicle for a huge explosion of interconnectivity there is a danger in that “You can never take information back once it’s out there,” Appelbaum says, “and it takes very little information to ruin a person’s life.” More and more often, people’s activities on the net can lead them to prison or death. It’s estimated that China has a division of over 30,000 censors maintaining ‘The Great Firewall of China’ as well as keeping tabs on what is being said an looked at by Chinese internet users. In situations where access to the internet is an integral aspect to banned activity/organising, that same tool can also be the source of surveillance, repression, torture and death if that information gets into the wrong terms. This is the fight that Appelbaum is leading.

What is TOR?

TOR is a technology originally developed by the US Navy in 2001 and since made open-source, where it has been taken up by the open-source community as a tool for secure and untraceable communication. In your average internet connection, you have the source, the sender and a connection that links them together. This connection is relatively easy to trace (as those sued for downloading MP3’s by the RIAA in the US have found out) and so dangerous, for those trying to use the internet in a manner that the ruling classes don’t like. TOR breaks this up by putting a random number of computers in-between you and the user you are intending to communicate with.

For example, if you were in Syria communicating with an outside organisation in the UK and being watched, TOR could send your email to Austria, Brazil, Canada, Australia, Germany and after a few more steps to the UK. In Syria all they could see would be a link to Austria. These intermediaries are randomised from around the world, making it almost impossible to track. The content of your email is not hidden (encryption is still needed to protect that) but the location of the person you are communicating with is secure. Wikileaks has made much use of the TOR network in the receiving and distributing the secret information that Wikileaks has made its name in.

US persecution.

“Well, after the summer of 2010, my life became a little hectic with regard to flying. I do a lot of traveling, working with the Tor Project. And after the summer of 2010, where I gave a speech at Hackers on Planet Earth in place of Julian Assange, I was targeted by the U.S. government and essentially, until the last four times that I’ve flown, I was detained basically every time. Sometimes men would meet me at the jetway, similarly, with guns.”

It was this speech that intensified the surveillance and harassment of Appelbaum. Soon afterwards he was stopped by customs officials on his way back into the US. They repeatedly demanded he reveal to them where Julian Assange was hiding (as if Appelbaum would have known). They insisted he tell them his opinions on the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Having taken away his three cellphones and his laptop and after three hours he was let go. This is something that has been repeated dozens of times to Applebaum and others associated with Wikileaks and Julian Assange.

He was interviewed by Democracy Now in April about the previous couple of years persecution. When Amy Goodman asked him about what he was asked about in his most recent questioning, he refused and then explained that:

We don’t live in a free country. And if I did, I guess I could tell you about it, right? And they took my laptop, but they gave it back. They were a little surprised it didn’t have a hard drive. I guess that threw them for a loop. And, you know, then they interrogated me, denied me access to a lawyer. And when they did the interrogation, they had a member of the U.S. Army, on American soil. And they refused to let me go. They tried—you know, they tried their usual scare tactics. So they sort of implied that if I didn’t make a deal with them, that I’d be sexually assaulted in prison, you know, which is the thing that they do these days as a method of punitive punishment, and they of course suggested that would happen.

His current public work involves speaking out on privacy issues, making people aware of the negatives as well as the positives of the ‘information revolution’. On the same show William Binney (an ex-NSA analyst who has come out strongly against the growing surveillance infrastructure being developed) had the following to say about the current potential for surveillance ability of the US “From this technology base, with one query, we can get all past and all future emails. So we only have to make one query to get it.” This is the danger that Appelbaum is fighting against.

When asked about how this ongoing struggle had affected his personal life. Applebaum had the following to say:

“And how has it changed my work? Well, I don’t have important conversations in the United States anymore. I don’t have conversations in bed with my partner anymore. I don’t trust any of my computers for anything at all. And in a sense, one thing that it has done is push me away from the work that I’ve done around the world trying to help pro-democracy activists starting an Arab Spring, for example, because I present a threat, in some cases, to those people. And I have a duty as a human being, essentially, to not create a threat for people. And so, in a sense, the state targeting me makes me less effective in the things they even, in some cases, fund the Tor Project to do, which is to help people to be anonymous online and to fight against censorship and surveillance.”

“Even though the government has a monopoly on violence, violence cannot solve math problems.”

“If it wanted to, Google could overthrow any country in the world. Google has enough dirt to destroy every marriage in America.”

Well, after the summer of 2010, my life became a little hectic with regard to flying. I do a lot of traveling, working with the Tor Project. And after the summer of 2010, where I gave a speech at Hackers on Planet Earth in place of Julian Assange, I was targeted by the U.S. government and essentially, until the last four times that I’ve flown, I was detained basically every time. Sometimes men would meet me at the jetway, similarly, with guns.

And how has it changed my work? Well, like Laura, I don’t have important conversations in the United States anymore. I don’t have conversations in bed with my partner anymore. I don’t trust any of my computers for anything at all. And in a sense, one thing that it has done is push me away from the work that I’ve done around the world trying to help pro-democracy activists starting an Arab Spring, for example, because I present a threat, in some cases, to those people. And I have a duty as a human being, essentially, to not create a threat for people. And so, in a sense, the state targeting me makes me less effective in the things they even, in some cases, fund the Tor Project to do, which is to help people to be anonymous online and to fight against censorship and surveillance.

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