Jacob Appelbaum has been called the "most dangerous man in cyberspace". But he's not, and it's a tag that pisses him off. Because, in reality, Appelbaum is merely a renowned cyber-security expert who happens to be one of the developers for the Tor Project, a collaborator with WikiLeaks (he's co-authoring a book with Julian Assange), and a trusted confidante of Edward Snowden confidante Laura Poitras, with whom he's working on the NSA leaks for Der Spiegel.
In 2010, Jacob became a target of the US intelligence services due to his links with WikiLeaks and has been detained and had his electronic equipment seized a number of times. Not particularly fond of the persecution he was facing in the States, 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 cyber-surveillance 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 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 militarisation 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 any more, it's a problem.
Obviously it's an imperfect system, otherwise they wouldn't have got 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 it 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 recognise that there are different kinds of anonymity, so – for example – here we are in this restaurant in Berlin, and neither of us have 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 behaviour, there is a larger undesirable behaviour to consider, which is that the internet as a gigantic global spying machine is not what we want for human society.
What about people on Silk Road who were selling guns or drugs, or soliciting murders, before it was closed down?
Show me a modern state that doesn't engage with those things anyway – it certainly isn't the UK or the US. Those things are a problem, but they're miniscule in comparison to not having the right to speak freely, not having the right to read. And we have to balance it not as a question of what bad people will do on the internet, but more about what a free society needs to be able to have.
A lot of people seem to think, 'I'm not at risk from the NSA and GCHQ because I'm not important enough.'
Yeah, well, why have a Bill of Rights or a Magna Carta, right? I mean, I'm never going to have trouble with the state, I've never done anything wrong, people say. The point of having fundamental liberties enshrined in legal and founding documents is that you don't know what the future holds and you should plan ahead.
Do you think some of the stories coming out about Tor not being as secure as they claim are designed to try to discredit its use?
I don't think they're designed, just that people write the man-bites-dog story whenever they can. A lot of journalists love to write stories that are talking badly about Tor, and those are the same journalists who don’t know anything about encryption or online privacy and couldn't use Tor to save their sources' lives. I think we’ll see that Tor fares better than anything else [in keeping identities anonymous]. People say, "Use a VPN" [used to connect proxy servers to conceal the user's identity], but these people fundamentally don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. Using a VPN is not an anonymity solution.
Julian Assange at his Ecuadorian embassy hideout. (Photo by Henry Langston)
But if you're in Saudi Arabia, say, and you just want to look at porn – or banned websites like Wikipedia – a VPN is perfectly adequate, right?
Yeah, unless you’re working for a Saudi oil company and you’re being targeted by the NSA and they use the fact that you use a VPN to isolate your traffic and just "man-in-the-middle" you in a way that nobody else could detect. So don’t bareback with Big Brother, he barebacks with everybody.
What do you think of the iPhone fingerprint hack?
That’s crazy. I don’t know what to say, you know.
But the print is encrypted on the phone and stays on the phone, according to Apple.
Until you jailbreak the phone, perhaps? I’m horrified that, in a time in which we're seeing stories about massive amounts of spying, that Apple – being a PRISM program partner – will increase the total surveillance to the point of having an electronic fingerprint of a person every time they unlock their phone. Steve Jobs might have been an unpleasant guy to work with, but I can’t imagine him doing that. That and the gold iPhone.
A gold iPhone and a fingerprint reader in one release? Steve Jobs is rolling over in his grave right now. I think people are very optimistic about these things, and I don’t have any problem with that optimism. But, at some point, optimism becomes solipsism, the belief that your view is the totality of reality. Look, we can’t prevent the NSA or the Chinese or GCHQ from breaking into our computer systems, so we should probably be careful about how total those systems are.
What can we do to turn this around?
It’s not clear what is to be done – the natural state of things isn't really observable in an easy fashion and it’s not clear what is happening, let alone what is to be done. So GCHQ and the idea that a "D Notice" was used to censor coverage of the surveillance – they’re suppressing all of the democratic debate that should be happening in the UK. That’s why you see a big debate happening in Germany and in the US, when you see almost nothing at all in the UK.
We haven’t quite hit eastern Europe. For example, in Greece with the Golden Dawn, they talk about turning immigrants into soap to wash the streets. The thing that’s terrible is that austerity creates this kind of class hatred and this racial hatred, and in some cases the austerity is happening in a totally non-democratic way. You see that austerity is forced only on certain people, and that’s very dangerous.
You said in a recent tweet, "When I rediscover great music or books I notice how the oppressive tactics of the US government have weighed on my entire life." Can you elaborate?
Oh sure. I was reading a book and listening to some David Bowie and I was thinking, ‘Hey, right now I’m probably under a lot of surveillance, and it’s probably not going to change in the near future. But in the US, I’m fairly certain I’ve had a black bag job on my apartment, my mother was arrested and jailed supposedly for unrelated charges, and – at at least two points – interrogated about my role in WikiLeaks.
I’m fairly certain that my partner woke up with night vision goggles pointed at her by unknown parties outside her house. And here in Berlin I’m certain there’s a similar amount of spying, but I don’t feel it in the same way. It’s the ability even for a moment to imagine that I’m not basically treated like an enemy of the state or a dissident of some kind; I couldn’t really pretend that in the United States. Here I can at least entertain the idea when I listen to David Bowie that nobody’s listening to me listening to David Bowie.
Jacob Appelbaum in Berlin.
Rolling Stone once said that you were the most dangerous man on the internet. Don’t you think The Man is the most dangerous man on the internet?
That article really pisses me off. The guy who wrote it is a great guy, and Rolling Stone originally published it saying, "The WikiLeaks villain you don’t know". I mean, they’re real sensationalist assholes. I was really mad when they said I was the most dangerous man in cyberspace, because that is ridiculous. The greatest threat to people on the internet is not a hacker, it’s the systemic abuse of laws that allow for surveillance without people breaking those laws being held to account.
So the greatest threat to people on the internet in some ways is The Man. But it’s not just one Man, but many states all collaborating together against individuals. What we need to see is a sort of resurgence of individual liberty. We need an enlightenment again to recognise that states should have limits, that there must be due process.
It’s very easy for people to come up with dystopias, but we've given up on utopias. Do you have any idea what one might look like?
The utopian worlds we used to think about were these future perfect worlds, and I think now one of the utopian ideals that people have is the idea that you can still have democracy, which is a very sad utopian goal in my mind. So the utopian ideal is actually kind of a conservative one, that nation states should be limited. And the dystopian reality that we find ourselves in is that there are no limits, and there exists a parallel structure for power almost completely unregulated by Congress.
They know damn well that they’re violating everyone’s rights; they’re breaking the wiretap act so often you can’t even begin to punish them. If they just wiretapped one person one time it would be a major felony, but if you do it 330 million times a second, what is that? Well, it’s not a conspiracy theory, it’s a business plan. So the utopias we’re reduced to are not like Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed-style anarchist moon utopia, but instead we are reduced to, "Some day we might have a limited government again, we might have a state that protects us."
I don’t measure my government by the fact that it’s not as bad as North Korea. I measure my government by what it is supposed to do, the ideals it is supposed to live up to. So, for me, utopia is this idea that we might have a liberal democracy again, period.