A top online-anonymity service, a renowned hacker collective and a privacy organization employing Edward Snowden all recently broke ties with security researcher Jacob Appelbaum amid numerous allegations of sexual harassment and assault.
Appelbaum, 33, is an outspoken privacy activist and confidant of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Rolling Stone dubbed him “the American WikiLeaks hacker” in 2010, a few months after Appelbaum filled in for Assange at the HOPE hacker conference, where Appelbaum gave a speech supporting Army private Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning’s leak of more than 700,000 classified U.S. documents to WikiLeaks. In 2013, Appelbaum vetted NSA contractor Edward Snowden for journalist Laura Poitras. He then worked with Poitras at Der Spiegel, where they pored over documents provided by Snowden.
On Saturday, the Tor Project, a nonprofit that maintains software for the anonymous-communication Tor web browser, announced Appelbaum’s resignation. Executive director Shari Steele wrote that Appelbaum, who had worked for Tor as a developer since 2004, stepped down after the nonprofit learned of “sexual mistreatment” allegations that were “consistent with rumors some of us had been hearing for some time.” Steele added that “the most recent allegations are much more serious and concrete than anything we had heard previously.”
This may have been a reference to a website where pseudonymous users allege that Appelbaum committed sexual assaults and intimidated victims from speaking out.
Appelbaum denied all of the allegations, issuing a lengthy statement calling them part of a plot to smear him. “Vague rumors and smear campaigns against me are nothing new,” Appelbaum wrote. “As a longtime public advocate for free speech and a secure internet, there have been plenty of attempts to undermine my work over the years.”
Appelbaum further claimed that he was the “target of a fake website in my name that has falsely accused me of serious crimes” and was “prepared to use legal channels, if necessary, to defend my reputation from these libelous accusations.”
Two Tor staffers, Andrea Shepard and Alison Macrina, said they spoke to some of the people who accused Appelbaum on the website and vouched for their stories.
“[The website is] related to something that started happening in earnest about three or four months ago,” Macrina told the Daily Dot. “People stopped being afraid to talk to each other about Jake. That’s how I heard from some victims.”
Security engineer Leigh Honeywell, who said she was sexually involved with Appelbaum in 2006 and 2007, publicly detailed alleged abuse by Appelbaum. Honeywell wrote that he “violated boundaries I set as though they were a game, particularly at times when I was intoxicated. There were a number of times I felt afraid and violated during interactions with Jacob.”
Other members of the information activist community acknowledged that Appelbaum’s alleged behavior had been an open secret. “This isn’t new or recent behavior.” Violet Blue, a journalist who said she has known Appelbaum since 2005, tweeted. “Many of us are just surprised it took this long to come out.”
Jake hated and threatened me because I wouldn't fuck him, and his humiliation/bullying tactics didn't work to make me give in. And because –
— Violet Blue ® (@violetblue) June 8, 2016
-because I physically stopped him from harassing/trying to isolate and fuck a frightened female friend at a party. He was furious.
— Violet Blue ® (@violetblue) June 8, 2016
Asher Wolf, an Australia-based information activist who previously worked with WikiLeaks and organized events to teach people how to use Tor, told Yahoo News: “There were whispers [about Appelbaum’s inappropriate conduct] for years. But it was only last year I heard allegations directly from people. The thing that is problematic is finding a way to work on [sexual assault] issues. It’s a community that often distrusts law enforcement.”
‘Values are undermined for a three-ring circus’
Given the sudden volume and intensity of the allegations against Appelbaum, prominent members of the community are now calling for people who feel victimized to speak out.
The Cult of the Dead Cow, a legendary hacker collective to which Appelbaum has belonged since 2008, announced that it was “troubled to hear the allegations of sexual abuse, manipulation and bullying leveled against one of our members, Jacob Appelbaum, aka ioerror.” The group “decided to remove Jake from the herd effective immediately” and encouraged others with relevant testimony to come forward and work with authorities if appropriate.
“We know that it may be scary, but we also encourage victims to contact their appropriate local authorities,” the statement said. “We understand the complicated relationship we all have with law enforcement, but there is a time and place for government intervention.”
Wolf explained that while the hacktivist community avoids institutional governance, it also lacks any alternative mechanism for dealing with alleged sexual mistreatment or assault. “In hackerspaces and activist communities, often the guidelines are not formalized and no one is tasked with implementing those standards,” she said.
The result, a sort of responsibility anarchy, isn’t working because “vigilante action against serial boundary-crossers, harassers, … is also highly problematic,” Wolf said. “There’s a failure of leadership in formal organized spaces such as hacker conferences and working spaces.”
Furthermore, according to Wolf, the halo of “hero worship” surrounding influential members of the male-dominated community makes it difficult for people to act on their accusations. Consequently, Appelbaum is merely the most high-profile example of a culture that has seemingly run amok.
“We talk a lot about how ethics should underpin the fight for privacy, encryption and free communication. But often in the hero worship of media-pumped activists employed by NGOs, these values are undermined for a three-ring circus, a party culture or a bro-fest,” she said. “We see the same circle of individuals time and time again on the conference circuit. … To speak up [against alleged sexual assault] means taking on cliques linked to potential employment and support networks.”
Appelbaum played an underappreciated role in the Snowden saga, helping Poitras early on and throughout the initiative to receive and peruse an estimated 200,000 documents provided by Snowden in Hong Kong in early June 2013.
But now it seems that the organization closest to Snowden has seemingly disavowed Appelbaum.
The Freedom of the Press Foundation, originally created to raise money for WikiLeaks, dropped Appelbaum from its technical advisory board on Wednesday in light of “the serious accusations made against him.” Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, the two American journalists who famously met Snowden in Hong Kong, helped found the Freedom of the Press Foundation in December 2012. Poitras began communicating with Snowden in January 2013.
At some point, Poitras, who had often worked with WikiLeaks and Appelbaum, asked Appelbaum to vet a then anonymous source. Appelbaum said that Poitras contacted him in mid-May, as Poitras was “in the process of putting questions together and thought that asking some specific technical questions was an important part of the source verification process.” On May 20, Snowden flew from Hawaii to Hong Kong with up to 1.7 million U.S. documents and waited to meet the Poitras and Greenwald.
In July 2013, after Snowden flew from Hong Kong to Russia, where he currently lives, Poitras and Appelbaum published an interview with Snowden. Also that month, Appelbaum explained that he decided to move to Berlin in case the authorities decided to target him in connection with Snowden. It turned out Appelbaum had coincidentally traveled to Hawaii in late March 2013, while Snowden prepared his massive data dump, and his high profile as Assange’s right-hand man during the Manning leak made him wary of staying in the U.S.
I’m in Berlin right now because I had the really f***ing awful unfortunate mistake of my whole life dreaming to go to Hawaii, to go swimming with manta rays and dolphins and like all this other like, you know unicorns and rainbows and all that stuff, right? … So I was in Hawaii for my 30th birthday, and 20 of my friends came. … The problem with data retention is it tells a story about you which is not necessarily true … but it’s made up of facts. …
So let’s say an analyst, looking at your data trail because of a grand jury, let’s say related to WikiLeaks, or other things, let’s say the largest national security leak in human history. Well, can you imagine what that analyst is thinking, now that I’ve had the misfortune of finally living this childhood dream? Only to have two months later, a guy … being stationed in Hawaii, leaking these documents. So here’s a great threat: I don’t actually trust that my country is a safe enough place. … So I came to Berlin because I thought it would be a much better place to write about some of the things that are taking place now.
Appelbaum served as the lead reporter on several Snowden stories for Der Spiegel, including a report about the NSA allegedly tapping one of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cellphones. Another report discussed a top secret catalog detailing NSA hacking tools. Appelbaum also accepted an award on Snowden’s behalf in Germany.
Snowden and Appelbaum officially became colleagues in March 2014, when Appelbaum joined the Freedom of the Press Foundation’s technical advisory board in March 2014. Snowden had joined Poitras and Greenwald on the board of directors in January 2014. Snowden, Poitras and Greenwald have not yet commented individually on the allegations against Appelbaum.
Yahoo News contacted Appelbaum, Freedom of the Press Foundation and Tor for additional comment but did not receive any responses.
‘These issues aren’t new or confined to one individual’
For a decade, Appelbaum influenced the hacker scene and privacy community. He was a force of nature for Tor, the Cult of the Dead Cow, WikiLeaks and the people surrounding Snowden. But as of this week, most prominent members of the privacy-rights community are no longer Appelbaum’s allies.
“We have been working with a legal firm that specializes in employment issues, including sexual misconduct,” Tor said in the Saturday statement. “They are advising us on how to handle this, and we intend to follow their advice. This will include investigations of specific allegations where that is possible. We don’t know yet where those investigations will lead or if other people involved with Tor are implicated.”
Meanwhile, some say Appelbaum’s downfall is casting a harsh light on a broader sexual mistreatment problem within the hacktivist community. What impact it has remains to be seen.
“This isn’t just about any of the allegations made recently,” Wolf told Yahoo News. “It’s about the cultures that organizations foster, it’s about willingness to address these issues — not just in online missives, but also in physical gatherings.”
Wolf added that the culture, including the organizations and individuals fostering it, must first realize that the problem goes beyond the disturbing allegations against Jacob Appelbaum.
“These issues aren’t new or confined to one individual,” Wolf said. “Solving them requires an acknowledgement these issues exist, and leadership in action.”