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Jacob Appelbaum is a journalist, hacker and a major developer on the TOR project. However, he neglects to mention the origins of TOR (the Office of Naval Research) or the Pentagon’s role in funding its development. In this episode I reflect on whether Appelbaum should be taken seriously as an advocate for an open society free from mass surveillance. Using a recent presentation by Appelbaum I explore how his proposed solutions and means of circumventing surveillance technology are exactly the reason why a politics of anti-surveillance is unlikely to emerge from the hacker culture.


That was a clip from a presentation by Jacob Appelbaum ‘A technical action plan’ at the Security in Times of Surveillance event in the summer of 2015. I was sent a link to this video by a friend who works in this area, at least he works with computers, and his fundamental question was ‘Specifically, from your perspective, I’m wondering why he would be explaining these systems, with enough detail to set the requirements for developing systems capable of “side-stepping” the existing ones?’

I answered his email but I did feel this would make for an interesting addition to this series because it links in with a lot of what we’ve been discussing. Now, for that question to make any sense we need to get our ducks in a row first and then return to it, so I guess we should answer two other questions first

(1) who is appelbaum? and (2) what is he on about in this presentation?

(1) Appelbaum is a journalist, hacker and computer security researcher, so it says on Wikipedia, born in 1983 somewhere in the United States. It did not prove easy to find out where he was born, I have to say I don’t know exactly, which is somewhat odd for such a high-profile figure. Wikipedia goes on to say that Appelbaum’s mother was a paranoid schizophrenic, and he was taken away from her by his aunt when he was only 6 years old, 2 years later he was put in a children’s home and another 2 years later custody of young Jacob was awarded to his father, who was broke. Apparently Appelbaum says that if he hadn’t been introduced to computer programming and the internet that he doesn’t believe he would still be alive.

So he’s something of a techno-religious zealot, attributing his own continued existence to the existence of the internet. Just putting the tinfoil hat on for a moment I do want to say that this whole story strikes me as very fishy, and I wonder who was the father of a friend who introduced him to computer programming? This sounds like a dramatic, poignant cover story for something else, the sort of story it is impolite and anti-social to question. Like Malala Yousafzai, the girl supposedly shot in the head by the Taliban. But in neither case do I have anything approaching solid evidence of foul play so I’ll simply offer you that as an intuition and move on.

Appelbaum has become something of a celebrated figure in this area, as indeed this area has become much more important and relevant and widely-discussed. He doesn’t seem to do much to court celebrity so I’m not blaming him for that, simply noticing that he’s part of the accepted group of hackers that you’re allowed to, supposed to, even encouraged to listen to. He’s been involved with Wikileaks and certainly post-Snowden his stock has risen further.

He is now on the technical advisory board for Freedom of the Press Foundation, which describes its mission thus: “Freedom of the Press Foundation is built on the recognition that this kind of transparency journalism — from publishing the Pentagon Papers and exposing Watergate, to uncovering the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program and CIA secret prisons — doesn’t just happen. It requires dogged work by journalists, and often, the courage of whistleblowers and others who work to ensure that the public actually learns what it has a right to know.”

On the board of directors is Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and ironically, or not so ironically, John Cusack and John Perry Barlow. So this is basically one big circlejerk – their mission is to praise the things done by their own board of directors. At least officially. And to say those exposures are the ones that really matter. And on the Technical Advisory Board are Jacob Appelbaum, and Rune Sandvik, one of the friends of Snowden who was part of the whole Hawaii crypto-party that was filmed by Snowden’s girlfriend.

So, in this organisation we have two generations of CIA bullshit merchants, and while Appelbaum himself may not be a CIA bullshit merchant he certainly seems to enjoy hanging around with that kind of crowd. The Freedom of the Press foundation, among other things, raises money to support the likes of Wikileaks, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Truthout, Muckrock, The National Security Archive – all somewhat useful organisations, but ones which consistently fail to go for the throat. Whether that makes them limited hangouts is another question – a lot of the time it’s just that the people at the top are spineless egotistical attention seekers like Julian Assange, who doesn’t want to upset the gravy train and so doesn’t probe into certain things. Naturally, you can disagree with me, I’m just offering my own opinions here.

Anyway, back to Appelbaum, he is also integrally involved in the TOR project, and is a major TOR advocate. Naturally, he never mentions that a large proportions of funds for the development of TOR have come and continue to come from the Pentagon, nor that the original version of TOR was developed by the Office of Naval Research on behalf of the CIA. And this is where I get into real problems with Appelbaum because he’s quite obviously an intelligent man, capable of understanding not just technological trends but also social and political ones. So I can’t believe he’s not aware of these facts, and yet I’m not sure he’s ever really addressed them. I’m not an archivist of everything he’s ever said so if I’m wrong about that then I’m wrong, but this is something that should at least be part of the discussion, no?

Of course, Edward Snowden is also a big advocate of TOR, which for those of you who don’t know is a means of disguising your internet activity by bouncing it through several other connections around the world and the whole thing is supposedly encrypted. Snowden was running a major TOR node, i.e. one handling a lot of traffic, while he was still working for the NSA in Hawaii. He has also made a big point of making sure his laptop with the TOR sticker on it is visible in a lot of photographs, it’s not remotely subtle behaviour.

(2) Which brings us back to Appelbaum’s presentation. In it he says a lot that I agree with, indeed most of it. He talks about the imbalance of power in our world, the great power that no one talks about that is analytics – understanding the data gleaned from mass surveillance, the need for people to create multiple identities today, here and now, in order to avoid dragnet surveillance in the future, the problem of these massive data storage centres holding data for 100 years, and that means they’ve 100 years to try to break whatever encryption we might use to disguise that data, and so crypto developers need to think longer term.

He also talks about a ‘new human right’, the right to be unpredictable, though he describes it as ‘I have a right be entropy’ which is a bit odd and reminiscent of nihilistic adolescent poetry but nonetheless I agree with his basic point here too. So there’s a lot in this presentation that I find agreeable and I will of course link it up so you can go and watch it for yourselves. But it is in the question and answer bit at the end that I think the most important and interesting part is. So I’ll play a few minutes for you then come back and explain why I think Appelbaum is being quite naive here:

(42:40 to 46:20)

Once again, there’s a lot I agree with in that but I think there is a fundamental dynamic at play that is worth exploring and explaining so as to highlight what I disagree with in what Appelbaum is saying here.

Basically, he was asked that, outside of technical and technological solutions to try to circumvent the surveillance, how do we actually get rid of the surveillance itself? He responded by talking about technical solutions. He was reminded again what the focus of the question was, and continued talking about technical solutions. Now, to be fair, he did say that he doesn’t know the answer, so I’m not really having a go at Appelbaum here, but this little dialogue is a great metaphor for the overall relationship between hackers and the security state.

These two should be at odds and to some extent they are, but they also live in a darwinistic symbiosis not unlike the flu virus and mammalian immune systems. The virus attacks, the immune system maybe takes a hit but it learns how to defend itself against that attack, it develops a resistance where before it was a weakness, a vulnerable point. The virus mutates, comes back with a new type of attack, and the process continues. Ultimately, hackers help the security state in becoming more technically sophisticated. That isn’t necessarily their fault, it’s just one of those inevitable relationships of power. The struggle makes each side stronger, but it can never truly be resolved. Appelbaum alludes to this sort of dialectic during his presentation, using the example of capital vs labour. But let’s stay focused on hackers vs the security state.

Appelbaum hopes that out of these imaginative technical solutions – make up, clothing to resist thermal cameras, some kind of new politics will emerge that will help roll back the security state, even eliminate mass surveillance. I think that while hackers remain in this paradigm, this dynamic where they seek their own advancement through struggling with the security state, as long as this symbiosis remains no new politics of that kind can emerge from the hacker culture. That is not to say it could not emerge from somewhere else, it could. I just think Appelbaum is maybe kidding himself here.

And so, you see, his inability to think of a non-technical solution is a metaphor for why a new politics of anti-surveillance will not emerge from the hacker culture. They are too busy tussling with the Pentagon’s new firewalls, trying to figure out how they work. And I get it, because in a lot of ways I’m the same. I’m using the Freedom of Information Act to hack the historical record, but I’m dependent on them actually releasing stuff in order to make the whole thing work. Would I be better off devoting myself 100% to a politics of transparency and thus, true democratic accountability? It’s a question I ask myself. And I do wonder if it is a question Appelbaum and his ilk ask themselves.

As always, I ask what do you think? Is Appelbaum for real? I invite you to watch the whole presentation and see for yourselves, it’s genuinely interesting stuff. And what do you think about the dynamic, the symbiosis I’ve described here, what else do you think it applies to? Because this discussion, about how power actually works, is perhaps the most important that anyone who is politically engaged and inclined could and should be having. If you ask me.