Jacob Appelbaum Doesn’t Have Much Hope for the Future of Privacy
Jacob Appelbaum has been called the “most dangerous man in cyberspace.” But he’s not, and it’s a label that pisses him off. In reality, Appelbaum is a renowned cybersecurity expert who happens to be one of the developers for the Tor Projec,; a WikiLeaks collaborator who recently co-authored a book with Julian Assange, and a trusted friend of Edward Snowden confidant Laura Poitras, with whom he’s working on the NSA links forDer Spiegel.
In 2010, Jacob became a target of the US intelligence services due to his links with WikiLeaks; he’s been detained and had his electronic equipment seized a number of times. Not particularly fond of the persecution he was facing, Appelbaum moved to Germany, where he has been approached by almost all the main German political parties as a computer expert, and has been consulting on films dealing with cybersurveillance and the current digital-rights climate.
On the day of our interview, his colleagues at the Chaos Computer Club—Europe’s largest hacking collective—managed to break the security on Apple’s iPhone 5 fingerprint scanner. And, Appelbaum promised, there were to be more big developments on the horizon for the Tor network. We sat down for a chat about whether or not the possibility of individual freedom has all but disappeared in the modern world.
VICE: What would you say is the best way to understand the internet, rather than thinking of it as just “cyberspace”?
Jacob Appelbaum: There’s no real separation between the real world and the internet. What we’ve started to see is the militarization of that space. That isn’t to say that it just started to happen, just that we’ve started to see it in an incontrovertible, “Oh, the crazy paranoid people weren’t crazy and paranoid enough,” sort of way. In the West, we see extreme control of the internet—the NSA/GCHQ stuff like the quantum insertion that Der Spiegel just covered… the Tempora program. Really, these aren’t about controlling the internet, it’s about using the internet to control physical space and people in physical space. That is to say they’re using the internet as a gigantic surveillance machine. And because you can’t opt out of the machine anymore, it’s a problem.
Obviously it’s an imperfect system, though, right? Otherwise they wouldn’t have gotten caught.
I agree that there’s something to be said about how they’re not perfect, but that’s the whole point; they present this all-seeing eye as if it’s the perfect solution, but it’s actually not a perfect solution and has some serious existential threats to democracy itself. You can’t have the largest spying system ever built and also say that somehow it won’t be abused.
Is the only alternative to that a system where anonymity is entirely guaranteed, even if you’re committing fraud or something?
It’s important to recognize that there are different kinds of anonymity. For example, here we are in this restaurant in Berlin, and neither of us has a cell phone on. Geographically, we’re anonymous, but we’re not going to defraud this restaurant. Likewise, on the internet there’s no reason my ISP should know the websites that I visit and where I’m located, and at no point does that necessitate that anything bad will happen. Though you will have some undesirable behavior, there is a larger undesirable behavior to consider, which is that the internet as a gigantic global spying machine is not what we want for human society.