Interview uncut: Jacob Appelbaum

Here is my brief email interview with Jacob Appelbaum for the "Cypherpunk Rising" article.

R.U. Sirius: Could you tell me a bit about discovering the cypherpunk idea and how it affected you? Also, anything about your sense of the history of the group and/or anything that was inspiring, like manifestos by Tim May or Eric Hughes

Jacob Appelbaum: I discovered the mailing list and the general ideas through some friends I'd met away from the keyboard. I later met a number of cypherpunks in the San Francisco bay area and at various cypherpunk events around the world.

RU: It’s interesting to have a book on Cypherpunk with Julian Assange as the author (his name, at least, is writ largest) when most people think of WikiLeaks as an anti-secrecy organization. Did he (or all of you) intentionally want to complexify the discussion around WikiLeaks or did anything like that even cross your mind(s)?

JA: Personal privacy and institutional transparency are complementary ideas that help to create a free and open society.

RU: Your harassment by US authorities, particularly revolving, it seems, around airports seems to me, in some ways, to send a much clearer signal about intimidation against dissident activists than even the situation with Bradley Manning (or Julian Assange, elsewhere), in the sense that you’re not even accused of a crime. Any thoughts on this and what it tells us about dissent today in America?

JA: My struggle is nothing compared to the suffering and torture that Bradley Manning has faced. Julian is imprisoned in a kinder, gentler space but let us make no mistake, he is also not free.

I have lived with some heavy psychological stresses for the last number of years. These stresses are not minor and they impact all of the people in my family and they impact all of my close friends.

We live in an era where the Galgenhumor of our era revolves about things that most people simply thought impossible in our lifetime. Indefinite detention under the US NDAA section 1021, drone strikes, warrantless wiretapping by the NSA, having entire lifetimes of data stored in the Utah Bluffdale datacenter, blackbag searches under section 215 of the US P.A.T.R.I.O.T. act., targeted computer exploits with police and/or intelligence malware, 2703(d) orders for account metadata without a warrant, sealed search warrants, exigent circumstance letters that come with gag provisions, and even kinds of economic or social blacklisting.

It isn't a great time to be a dissenting voice of any kind in our American empire. This is however hardly what will matter in a few years — what we will remember is the absolute silence by so many when the above things became normalized. In a few years, I suspect it will be worse to be a dissenting voice or to have been a dissenting voice, ever. If we look at the case of Anwar al Awlaki or his sixteen year old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, we see that we're not merely in a place where someday things might be bad. We're in a place where those previously unthinkable actions by the US government have come to pass and are on the path to becoming normalized procedure.

To read more about Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, I encourage Glenn Greenwald's article on the topic:

RU: The original cypherpunks — in reading their manifestos (also in hanging with them some) seemed to believe that they could sort of overthrow all government and take over the world with encryption technology. (Is this even a good idea?) I see a shift from this hyperconfident sort of utopianism to something more defensive and maybe even desperate… a fight for some space for privacy in a dystopian total surveillance society. Am I reading this wrong?

JA: I think rather Tim and others felt quite a lot of things. A key thought that cypherpunks could use cryptography to push back specific kinds of nonconsensual authoritarian abuse that was generally possible as a matter of procedure. As long as specific activities have gatekeepers, power will flow to those gates and their respective keepers. Pressure flows to those places as well. As an example, we cannot seem to convince service providers not to log — so we simply use cryptography, ala Tor, to ensure that the log files show access from an anonymity network, rather than our actual ISP. This kind of thinking later turned in a common phrase known as "Privacy by Design" in policy circles. Cryptography is one of the cornerstones of compartmentalization in the modern world. Privacy by Design requires well defined compartmentalization of information to ensure certain properties even in the face of physical violence.

RU: There’s a mention of the "California guys" and a seeming distinction being drawn somewhere in the book, but it’s not made too clear. Is there a distinction? Anarchocapitalist ‘90s Americans and left leaning Europeans?

JA: Sure, we all have different cultural baggage. What kind of atheist are you?

RU: The cypherpunk code — transparency for the powerful and privacy for the weak — surely there are going to be some situations where that code gets a bit scrambled or complicated. Have you bumped into this sort of situation where you’re unsure what the ethical thing is?

JA: I don't think I'd actually advocate for your exact phrasing.

You're an authority and powerfully charged about underground San Francisco culture; I'd not advocate that you should have to be totally transparent merely because you hold some kind of power. Rather, I'd try to consider that there are different kinds of power and some power in theory is legitimately lent from the people to specific institutions or representatives. It is exactly that kind of power that requires transparency — it isn't about the people wielding per se, though it obviously does factor into the overall picture.

Furthermore, I would suggest that privacy and privacy enhancing technology are for everyone with no exceptions. It isn't for the weak alone but it must of course absolutely include everyone. When we speak about cryptography, we should consider that we need Free and Open Source Software to both verify and improve it easily. We also need that to ensure that everyone has a reasonable baseline — which is part of the cypherpunk ethos.

RU: The role of the US in internet free speech… The opposition of the US to the UN Internet treaty seems to place the country in the role of defender of free communication, at least relative to what a lot of the rest of the world would do. Any thoughts?

JA: The US government should give up their collective surveillance and wiretapping addictions. We are weakening our infrastructure and our society with a very imbalanced series of trade-offs. The FBI fights for the power to conduct surveillance against me and in doing so, creates systemic insecurity that may be exploited by anyone. Susan Landau has written extensively on this topic and I generally agree with her views on these topics. The US should be aware of these realities and the economic implications of surveillance possibilities created by conflicts of interest.

RU: In the Cypherpunks book, Julian’s leadership quality really comes across. Of course, we’re supposed to be ambiguous at best about leaders, but do you think he has some special qualities as a wide ranging thinker?

JA: At Noisebridge, we coined a phrase, sudo leadership, to drive home the idea that people should freely grant a temporary kind of authority for a topic, subject or activity.

RU: What would you say is the impact of Tor at this point?

JA: Tor is part of an ecosystem of software that helps people regain and reclaim their autonomy. It helps to enable people to have agency of all kinds; it helps others to help each other and it helps you to help yourself. It runs, it is open and it is supported by a large community spread across all walks of life.

RU: Didn’t I read somewhere that virtually everybody in Greece had their personal data hacked toward the end of last year? Do you think we might be close to some signature event that might just scramble financial data beyond all repair? (A finance singularity?)

JA: Didn't we already have one of those? :)

RU: How powerful and effective a force in the world do you think Wikileaks is? Where does it stand in the sort of grand scheme of things?

JA: I think WL is a powerful and effective force for good in the world. Specifically at a time when so many journalists literally advocate for wars of aggression or sit silently during dark times of extrajudicial assassinations. When such activities are exposed, we learn about not just those specific issues, we learn about complicity, we also have the information laid bare before us in an unambiguous manner.