He beckons me over to one of his eight computers and presses several keys, activating Blockfinder. In less than 30 seconds, the program lists all of the Internet Protocol address allocations in the world — potentially giving him access to every computer connected to the Internet. Appelbaum decides to home in on Burma, a small country with one of the world's most repressive regimes. He types in Burma's two-letter country code: "mm," for Myanmar. Blockfinder instantly starts to spit out every IP address in Burma.
Blockfinder informs Appelbaum that there are 12,284 IP addresses allocated to Burma, all of them distributed by government-run Internet-service providers. In Burma, as in many countries outside the United States, Internet access runs through the state. Appelbaum taps some keys and attempts to connect to every computer system in Burma. Only 118 of them respond. "That means almost every network in Burma is blocked from the outside world," he says. "All but 118 of them."
These 118 unfiltered computer systems could only belong to organizations and people to whom the government grants unfettered Internet access: trusted politicians, the upper echelons of state-run corporations, intelligence agencies.
"Now this," Appelbaum says, "is the good part."
He selects one of the 118 networks at random and tries to enter it. A window pops up asking for a password. Appelbaum throws back his head and screams with laughter — a gleeful, almost manic trill. The network runs on a router made by Cisco Systems and is riddled with vulnerabilities. Hacking into it will be trivial.
It's impossible to know what's on the other side of the password. The prime minister's personal e-mail account? The network server of the secret police? The military junta's central command? Whatever it is, it could soon be at Appelbaum's fingertips.
So will he do it?
"I could," Appelbaum says, with a smile. "But that would be illegal, wouldn't it?"
No one has done more to spread the gospel of anonymity than Appelbaum, whose day job is to serve as the public face of the Tor Project, a group that promotes Internet privacy through a software program invented 15 years ago by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. He travels the world teaching spooks, political dissidents and human rights activists how to use Tor to prevent some of the world's most repressive regimes from tracking their movements online. He considers himself a freedom-of-speech absolutist. "The only way we'll make progress in the human race is if we have dialogue," he says. "Everyone should honor the United Nations human rights charter that says access to freedom of speech is a universal right. Anonymous communication is a good way for this to happen. Tor is just an implementation that helps spread that idea."
In the past year alone, Tor has been downloaded more than 36 million times. A suspected high-level member of the Iranian military used Tor to leak information about Tehran's censorship apparatus. An exiled Tunisian blogger living in the Netherlands relies on Tor to get past state censors. During the Beijing Olympics, Chinese protesters used Tor to hide their identities from the government.
The Tor Project has received funding not only from major corporations like Google and activist groups like Human Rights Watch but also from the U.S. military, which sees Tor as an important tool in intelligence work. The Pentagon was not particularly pleased, however, when Tor was used to reveal its secrets. Wikileaks runs on Tor, which helps to preserve the anonymity of its informants. Though Appelbaum is a Tor employee, he volunteers for Wikileaks and works closely with Julian Assange, the group's founder. "Tor's importance to Wikileaks cannot be understated," Assange says. "Jake has been a tireless promoter behind the scenes of our cause."
In July, shortly before Wikileaks released the classified Afghanistan war documents, Assange had been scheduled to give the keynote speech at Hackers on Planet Earth (HOPE), a major conference held at a hotel in New York. Federal agents were spotted in the audience, presumably waiting for Assange to appear. Yet as the lights darkened in the auditorium, it was not Assange who took the stage but Appelbaum.
"Hello to all my friends and fans in domestic and international surveillance," Appelbaum began. "I am here today because I believe we can make a better world. Julian, unfortunately, can't make it, because we don't live in that better world right now, because we haven't yet made it. I wanted to make a little declaration for the federal agents that are standing in the back of the room and the ones that are standing in the front of the room, and to be very clear about this: I have, on me, in my pocket, some money, the Bill of Rights and a driver's license, and that's it. I have no computer system, I have no telephone, I have no keys, no access to anything. There's absolutely no reason that you should arrest me or bother me. And just in case you were wondering, I'm an American, born and raised, who's unhappy. I'm unhappy with how things are going." He paused, interrupted by raucous applause. "To quote from Tron," he added, "'I fight for the user.'"
For the next 75 minutes, Appelbaum spoke about Wikileaks, urging the hackers in the audience to volunteer for the cause. Then the lights went out, and Appelbaum, his black hoodie pulled down over his face, appeared to be escorted out of the auditorium by a group of volunteers. In the lobby, however, the hood was lifted, revealing a young man who was not, in fact, Appelbaum. The real Appelbaum had slipped away backstage and left the hotel through a security door. Two hours later, he was on a flight to Berlin
To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here
Picks From Around the Web
blog comments powered by Disqus