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Jacob Appelbaum: Revolutionary times

INTERVIEW: America and the NSA? Evil? New Berliner, exiled hacktivist and passionate idealist Appelbaum ran from them and in turn brought a new wave of anti-surveillance enthusiasm to the city's already teeming digital dissident scene.

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Photo by Michal Andrysiak

Jacob Appelbaum: New Berliner, exiled hacktivist, passionate idealist

A longtime collaborator of Julian Assange, a close friend of Edward Snowden confidants Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald and now himself a trusted ally of the NSA whistleblower, this is a man with some serious cred on the Snowden scene.

Jacob Appelbaum is a natural-born dissident with a fighting spirit and serious oratory skills. Starting off as a campaigner for medical marijuana in California at age 15, Appelbaum spent more time worrying about planet Earth (later with Greenpeace and Rain Forest Action Network) and his computer’s ecosystem than his schoolwork. By his early twenties he was busy helping friends bring technology to Iraq (installing internet satellites in Kurdistan) or de-constructing Apple’s encrypted disk storage system. His involvement with the Tor Project (from 2004) and Wiki-Leaks were soon to follow. In 2010, Rolling Stone tagged him the “most dangerous man in cyberspace”, a label that still pisses him off today.

He would hate the idea, but the Snowden affair has boosted his career – as a freelance writer with access to the NSA files, and as a public speaker who’s been both an expert on and victim of digital surveillance. Appelbaum was among the few cyber-security brains who engineered the Tor anonymity software. This and his connection to WikiLeaks earned him harassment from US intelligence agencies – relentless pressure which culminated in his girlfriend being spied on in her bedroom. In June of last year, he decided to bid home and friends farewell and join the likes of Poitras and WikiLeaks’ Sarah Harrison in self-imposed Berlin exile.

Appelbaum – a man with over 76,000 Twitter followers – is coy about his new celebrity on the digital scene. Yet today it’s hard to conceive of a conference with the words “surveillance” or “Snowden” in the title without his participation. Like many of his techie peers, he encrypts his email, and if he does have a smartphone on him, the battery travels separately in his bag.

“I’m a journalist, a computer security researcher/programmer, as well as an artist – all three are on my visa,” a freelance visa Germany has just renewed for another two years.

He’s also bit of a rabble-rouser – like when this year, after winning the respected Henri Nannen prize for journalism, Appelbaum publicly expressed his shame at winning an award named after a one-time Nazi (the famous Stern founder was a Waffen-SS propaganda man in Italy), and pledged to melt his award together with those of other winners, creating a new artwork.

In person, “Jake”, as his friends call him, comes across as a rather shy, aloof type. But get him on topic and this 31-year-old tattooed product of “generation so-what” metamorphoses into an uncompromising yet endearing idealist. 

Last year, you decided to move to Berlin after years of harassment by the US government. Why then?

I had enough. For years I had terrible interactions with the police, with border control, with the FBI. All sorts of different encounters that my family had experienced, that my partner had experienced, who is no longer my partner now partially due to this stress. Unbelievable things really.

Can you tell me about one of these unbelievable things?

Sure. A couple of years ago my mother was arrested in a small town in California. This is not necessarily out of the ordinary for her, she is a troubled person. But the police kicked down the door and arrested her on the toilet and dragged her out of the apartment while recording the entire happening on an audio recorder. I flew to California to try and bail her out of jail. I thought that this is just what would happen to any person’s mother in these sort of circumstances.

But it became increasingly clear to me that there was something else happening by the way that they treated her. She was handcuffed and tied down; her wrists and ankles and waist were all chained together. At one point she was interrogated about my role in WikiLeaks. I had never told my mother about Julian Assange or WikiLeaks. She doesn’t use the internet.

So they transferred her to a mental hospital eventually. I met her there and she told me that they were drugging her against her will. They had been given an order by the judge to forcibly drug her. They interrogated her again about my role in WikiLeaks. She spent 18 months in jail without a trial. She has been on probation for three years and because I have left the US, I haven’t seen her in this period of time. It is a very sad situation. 

You were also followed, harassed…

When I was in Iceland, I received a panicked message. My now ex-fiancée had woken up with men wearing night vision goggles watching her sleep in her home. When we travelled together, I would go through customs with her and they would literally take me away in front of her and deny to her that I existed. I experienced this for years. 

When did it start?

It really started in 2009, but I had been very quiet about it. It really started to heat up in 2010 and 2011 and got gradually worse. In May 2013 I had dinner with my aforementioned ex-girlfriend, and at this dinner we were physically followed by at least two agents we think were with the FBI. We negotiated over the internet to have dinner at a specific restaurant at a specific time and she picked me up and we drove there. The email was encrypted and we used all sorts of stuff, but it’s clear that both of our computers were probably compromised and they knew everything. What is weird is that we didn’t go to the restaurant that we planned on.

At the last second I had a nervous twitch and I said, let’s take a left right here and go to this restaurant. And not 10 minutes later a guy with a buzz cut sits down right next to us, puts his cell on the table, the microphone of his phone directly pointed at me. Twenty minutes later a woman comes and sits down next to him. And she also puts her cell phone on the table. They pretended to be on a first date but they never said anything about what they do, why she was late… At some point my fiancée really broke down crying from the pressure. The day before, Laura Poitras had come to visit us in Seattle. So it’s quite clear that this surveillance had been linked, they wanted to know what had happened with Laura. And of course that wasn’t the topic of our dinner conversation. 

Was it during the Snowden revelations?

No, Laura was just visiting me. Laura and I have been dear friends for a long time. That kind of harassment started much before Snowden. And this led me to realise that when these leaks started coming out, something big was happening. When we learned about Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, I was actually in Munich – on my way to Seattle from a trip to India. A friend from the Chaos Computer Club walked up to me while I was having dinner and he said to me, “Did you hear the source of the leaks?” I was travelling with Laura’s producer Caity, and we were filming together… I think she even filmed me loading the page of The Guardian, learning the name of Edward Snowden and learning why we couldn’t reach Laura all that time. I put everything together and realised that if I were to go back now, these years of harassment about WikiLeaks would be nothing compared to what was coming next. So I cancelled my return flight and I never went home again. That was in early June of 2013. 

All those years of harassment – it was because of your involvement with WikiLeaks?

The data trail you leave behind tells a story about you, but not necessarily one that is true. Even if it’s made up of facts. For years the US government harassed me because they thought Bradley Manning, now Chelsea Manning, had given me documents. But that is not true. 

How do you know they thought that?

Because they dragged friends of mine into a grand jury in Virginia and threatened them with indefinite detention if they did not testify against me, waive their constitutional liberties and talk about me specifically. When I realised that they had a completely incorrect theory and that they tried to destroy my life for years, I thought to myself that there will be no end to what they do to harass and to destroy. So, I felt I shouldn’t return. 

So why Berlin?

I feel safer in East Berlin as an immigrant than I ever have as a citizen in the United States.

Berlin has an incredible culture of resistance. I have been coming to Berlin for many years because of the Chaos Computer Club, and I’ve worked with Der Spiegel in the context of WikiLeaks. I have a lot of close friends here in the art world and in the computer hacker world and in the journalistic world. I exist at the intersection of those three worlds, and Berlin makes me very happy.

We often joke that it’s this sort of last stand for democracy. Where people are really having real dialogues. The people in Chaos ComputerClub, Der Spiegel, taz, Exberliner, etc. said to me that they were with me, and so I have been here for a year and have applied for a temporary residence visa, as everyone does, and I received it. Frankly, I feel safer in East Berlin as an immigrant than I ever have as a citizen in the United States. 

You never felt like applying for asylum?

I do not relish the idea of being a refugee. I hope it never comes to that. I have been offered political asylum by other countries. I don’t want to say which ones. The US government is out to get everyone associated with WikiLeaks and Snowden in any way they can. It is political persecution. I think that Germany has done a good job by letting me stay. I want the same for everyone who needs it. 

It is a beautiful irony to be an exile here. Berlin has a crazy history of surveillance from the Cold War to the present day. We know from the Snowden files that Germany is the NSA’s closest ally in Europe.

Even with Berlin’s history, even with the intense irony of East Berlin being a place where we work on these things now, it is not necessarily an endorsement that Berlin is perfect. There is an immense amount of spying here by the German government and the NSA. We now know how closely they work together. For example, as far as we can tell all the American drone assassinations are relayed through Germany… 

You and Laura both worked with Der Spiegel – how did it happen?

Well, Andy Müller-Maguhn and I had been working with Spiegel in various capacities over the years and we both convinced her to come and work with us. Marcel Rosenbach and Holger Stark are two of the greatest living journalists; they are good-natured, have good ethics and I trust them both.  

Were you ever tempted to join Glenn Greenwald and The Guardian?

Well, I was working with Glenn, and I asked The Guardian for a letter to be covered under their editorial secrecy privileges, and they declined. I think it’s because they’re a petty, shitty newspaper with people at the helm like Luke Harding, Alan Rusbridger and David Leigh who have an axe to grind about WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, and they decided that that was more important than anything else including protecting me. When, in September 2013, Leigh and Harding were here at Hundt Hammer Stein bookstore for a reading of their book on WikiLeaks, they lied about Julian endlessly. Do you know that when Julian first went to the [Ecuadorian] embassy, The Guardian sent him a basket with clean socks and soap in it? That is the attitude that The Guardian has towards serious journalists! 

Don’t you think they did a good job with the Snowden leaks? They broke the story despite considerable pressure…  

The Guardian is a petty, shitty newspaper with an axe to grind about WikiLeaks and Julian Assange.

Until you consider the fact that they said they wouldn’t even touch anything related to Afghanistan or Iraq, for example. I mean, that’s unbelievable… They have done a good job in some of this reporting, but to me it is very sad that they view this as a competition between news organisations or egos as opposed to understanding the importance overall. You see this with Harding’s book about the Snowden files.

What does he know about Snowden? He has no contact to Snowden, no idea about any of this stuff, and he writes this totally exploitative book to try and present to us the full history and it is completely preposterous – this is The Guardian. The fact that they have all these documents but they are basically done reporting on them – to me that’s another example of how unbelievably irresponsible they are as a publication. We don’t need organisations like these who serve the state, we have enough of those. We need organisations who serve the public interest, and this is what the press is supposed to do. 

Why didn’t you follow Laura and Glenn to The Intercept?

I really like The Intercept, and I think the people working there are of the highest calibre. I’m glad Pierre [Omidyar] is financing it, but you’ve gotta ask yourself, why? It is purely to make money. My interest is very much aligned to increase justice in the world, to try and improve human rights issues. So I care very much about the things that Jeremy Scahill writes on The Intercept about drone strikes. I care what Glenn is doing, I care what Laura is doing. I have the utmost respect for publications that get the truth out for the public interest. But each of these places have different limits and different goals. 

You are being overly diplomatic now.

I’m not! People who work as effective journalists in the US are harassed, they are bothered… They are arrested and they live with serious fear of repercussions even if they won’t admit it. 

So, would you say that’s the reason why The Intercept withheld the fact that Afghanistan had been under total NSA surveillance in their exposure of the so-called Bahamas story – too much pressure?

I think it is quite clear that organisations like The Intercept are explicitly under pressure. And The Washington Post is also explicitly under pressure – they got the story and actually didn’t publish the names of any of those countries… When you talk to the people who work at these organisations they all have a great deal of fear. 

But look, Glenn and Laura are two heroes of fearless journalism. They proved their integrity many times and now they’ve gone on to found a new media platform… you would expect that organisation to be more ‘independent’.

So what does that tell you about what’s possible? 

It tells me that apparently it’s not possible.

That is the answer to the question then. What is possible for The Intercept, The Washington Post or The Guardian? There are all different things in terms of possibilities. Could The Intercept publish anything they want? Potentially, but there are consequences that come with it. Political, legal and maybe even technical consequences. The reality of the situation is that there is a reason why WikiLeaks exists. WikiLeaks is a publisher of the last resort. 

So, without WikiLeaks, the Afghan people wouldn’t have been informed…

I am happy that WikiLeaks exists because they serve as a balancing factor. Right? When publications like The Intercept fear to publish something like that or worry that it could be harmful, WikiLeaks is able to come in and talk about it. It really behooves governments not to pressure places like The Intercept or The Washington Post because that creates a space where it’s absolutely clear that WikiLeaks is a necessity, even now. I think it’s sad that there is an environment where news publications are not allowed to tell you certain facts, but it is also the reality of the situation that we are living in. 

What do you think was the most significant thing about the Snowden files?

I think that it is important to understand that Snowden serves as an example that it is not only possible to resist, it is possible to resist and to survive. What Snowden has done is a brave act of whistleblowing. He has paid dearly for it, and many people are working to ensure that he doesn’t pay with his life. Of course the impact of the documents was important, but the impact of surviving alone was just as important in some sense for inspiring other people. I mean, [NSA whistleblower William] Binney doesn’t have legs anymore. He is a double amputee from the diabetes and the stress of his life. Thomas Drake’s life has been in some ways completely ruined. Chelsea Manning has ended up with a 35-year prison sentence. 

But is being stuck in Russia under Putin’s guardianship really an enviable option?

Well, that’s a really loaded statement; how do you know that Putin has anything to do with Edward Snowden? Let me just say that it’s better to be alive and stuck in one of the largest countries in the world than to be imprisoned or to be dead. But some people deny this and suggest that he is a pawn or a puppet. They criticise his choice of asylum. But he applied for asylum in as many countries as possible, and nearly every single one refused on a technicality. Sarah Harrison and Julian Assange saved his life because WikiLeaks takes source protection seriously. Just imagine, those three people managed to embarrass the entire intelligence community. That is so powerful. 

Then there are those who say things like, “Well, what did we learn from Snowden that we didn’t know before?”

There is a difference between suspecting and absolutely knowing something like the fact that the Bahamas are under complete surveillance. There is a difference between understanding that metadata programs are being used to help kill people with drone strikes and speculating about it. There is a difference between understanding that Chancellor Merkel is spied on as a head of state in theory and finding out it is entirely the case. Because of my experiences, I know something about the difference between probability and certainty, what is legal versus what is happening. I, for the rest of my life, will never lie down in a bed in a house and not know that my house is monitored. I will never be able to have a free conversation in my home for as long as I live… 

Stuff like that used to be called paranoia. So, you’re saying it vindicates the paranoid ones among us?

When Julian Assange and I wrote Cypherpunks, many people said that we were crazy, paranoid, etc. Well now, thanks to Snowden, we know it is no longer unreasonable to think that our phones are being tapped or that the internet is being monitored. It is a fact. It might be oppressive in a sense, but it is still a liberating phase because it is no longer a question. Every person who doesn’t work to change it is complicit. That’s the difference. There is a huge split between a bunch of cynical people who say they already knew and don’t need to think further about it, and a number of not-so-cynical people who say it’s what we suspected and what we feared, now let’s change it. 

Were you personally shocked by those revelations?

I moved beyond shock. I am horrified and I want things to change. One way to change these things is to publicise them so that people know about them, and another way is to build alternative solutions to them. And this is what we are doing with the Tor Project, for example, and many other people are working on exactly that as well. 

So, how do you get people to go to the next level – from awareness to action?

We have to have a lot more than just individual actions. My recycling does not save the environment. It is a useful part of a much bigger picture. We need industrial action on a planetary scale. For example we have to re-engineer the way telecommunication systems work. Why can the NSA wiretap entire countries? Because the infrastructure is designed to be wiretapped and they exploit it. And that needs to be changed. The reality is that most people trust the defaults of their electronic devices. Until the architecture is privacy by design, we will have privacy by policy. Privacy by policy will always be violated by people who do not feel that they are constrained by that policy. We have to work to change the way our infrastructure works. To make it actually secure. 

But many don’t feel that concerned – as internet users, they just want to accomplish certain tasks and are unbothered about corporate or political use of their personal data….

Saying, “Oh I’m not interesting, no one will want to watch me” as a way of coping with this stress is understandable. But I would re-frame it as “intelligence agencies are normal people”. The capabilities necessary to tap a cell phone costs €1000 or less. The methods are available to everyone – an ex-lover, a competitive journalist… So, it’s about choice, not whether or not you have something to hide. There are businesses that exploit people’s lack of knowledge, and, yes, we should question the centralisation of businesses like Facebook and Twitter. We have to deal with corporate surveillance and government surveillance and the ties between them. It is a big problem. But it is something we can solve. 

You called Facebook Stasibook…

Yes, because of its close collaboration with the state. They have an entire department that does nothing but turn over data to police, governments and other requesting parties. I’m sure that the FBI went to Facebook for any data that they had on me. The Department of Justice went to Twitter and Google for me. I think the big fallacy is to think that because people use Facebook they don’t care about privacy. But what is the alternative for most people? The reality is that if you live in London, when you walk down the street, it’s a privacy-violating channel of information. But what can you do? You won’t stay inside all the time, which doesn’t mean you don’t care about the cameras. So, we must build alternatives so that people can choose. And we can do it. 

You seem unexpectedly confident, even optimistic.

I don’t think there is a divide between the physical and digital world anymore and history shows us that it is possible to resist and it is necessary to do so. With the Snowden files and WikiLeaks we’ve entered revolutionary times, big changes are ahead. 

Do you think that Snowden sparked a revolution?

Yes. I think Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras, Chelsea Manning, Glenn Greenwald and others have all contributed a great deal to history. We live in times of extreme upheaval. I see that we have already built the beginning of alternative structures that exist already. Like the Tor network. Millions of people use it everyday. Whistleblowers, journalists, doctors… It is not a promise of the future, it is an optimistic reality. I would say there is a long struggle, and we are in the middle of this struggle. We may not win all these battles and we may not stop mass surveillance, but there is an opportunity to do that, and with those tools many people are not as vulnerable to surveillance as the rest of the planet is by default right now. 

So, it’s about empowering ourselves as citizens of the digital age?

The point is whether you want to support the fundamental tenets of a democratic society. If you do, then you should use these types of programs. What is most important is to think about the big picture in order to restore balance to a lot of what has been lost. We fundamentally need to re-architect and re-affirm things, we need our policies and our technologies to line up, we need to re-affirm fundamental principles about human rights. When I first went to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, I cried. 

I thought you belonged to “generation so-what”. You’re turning out to be such an idealist!

There was never a time in history where this many people could be under surveillance. This is new, and it is not okay.

The court in Strasbourg is one of the most utopian visions. This notion that any person can lodge a case or a claim, that any person has the right to have injustices done to them by states redressed in this manner, and for states to have to do something about it… well, this to me is something almost unimaginable. But then I think of people like Assange, Snowden and Poitras and I think, of course we need to re-affirm these values that were hard-won after the Second World War. We can’t solve it in a cynical way. There was never a time in history where this many people could be under surveillance. This is new and it is not okay. And we can stop it and we should stop it.

Things like cryptoparties are part of a grassroots response to stop that on an individual level and they are great. We need people to do this in law, we need companies to take a strong stance to ensure that these types of communications are secure, to have opportunities for anonymity, that there is a possibility for a data-retention-free society. These kinds of things are critical. I think there are actually ways in which we know how to do it now. We can use some of the existing apparatuses to change the world. And it is already happening. Every time you anonymise, every time you encrypt, every time you assert your rights and refuse submission, we’re winning.

Originally published in issue #130, September 2014.