The American Wikileaks Hacker

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By the time Appelbaum returned to America 12 days later and was detained at Newark, newspapers were reporting that the war documents identified dozens of Afghan informants and potential defectors who were cooperating with American troops. (When asked why Wikileaks didn't redact these documents before releasing them, a spokesman for the organization blamed the sheer volume of information: "I just can't imagine that someone could go through 76,000 documents.") Marc Thiessen, a former Bush speechwriter, called the group "a criminal enterprise" and urged the U.S. military to hunt them down like Al Qaeda. Rep. Mike Rogers, a Republican from Michigan, said that the soldier who allegedly provided the documents to Wikileaks should be executed.

Two days later, after speaking at a hackers conference in Las Vegas, Appelbaum was approached by a pair of undercover FBI agents. "We'd like to chat for a few minutes," one of them said. "We thought you might not want to. But sometimes it's nice to have a conversation to flesh things out."

Appelbaum has been off the grid ever since — avoiding airports, friends, strangers and unsecure locations, traveling through the country by car. He's spent the past five years of his life working to protect activists around the world from repressive governments. Now he is on the run from his own.
Appelbaum's obsession with privacy might be explained by the fact that, for his entire childhood, he had absolutely none of it. "I come from a family of lunatics," he says. "Actual, raving lunatics." His parents, who never married, began a 10-year custody battle before he was even born. He spent the first five years of his life with his mother, whom he says is a paranoid schizophrenic. She insisted that Jake had somehow been molested by his father while he was still in the womb. His aunt took custody of him when he was six; two years later she dropped him off at a Sonoma County children's home. It was there, at age eight, that he hacked his first security system. An older kid taught him how to lift the PIN code from a security keypad: You wipe it clean, and the next time a guard enters the code, you blow chalk on the pad and lift the fingerprints. One night, after everyone had gone to sleep, the boys disabled the system and broke out of the facility. They didn't do anything special — just walked around a softball field across the street for half an hour — but Appelbaum remembers the evening vividly: "It was really nice, for a single moment, to be completely free."

When he was 10, he was assigned by the courts to live with his father, with whom he had remained close. But his dad soon started using heroin, and Appelbaum spent his teens traveling with his father around Northern California on Greyhound buses, living in Christian group homes and homeless shelters. From time to time, his father would rent a house and turn it into a heroin den, subletting every room to fellow addicts. All the spoons in the kitchen had burn stains. One morning, when Appelbaum went to brush his teeth, he found a woman convulsing in the bathtub with a syringe hanging out of her arm. Another afternoon, when he came home from school, he found a suicide note signed by his father. (Appelbaum saved him from an overdose that day, but his father died several years later under mysterious circumstances.) It got so that he couldn't even sit on a couch for fear that he'd be pierced by a stray needle.

An outsider in his own home, Appelbaum embraced outsider culture. He haunted the Santa Rosa mall, begging for change. He dressed in drag and "I ♥ Satan" T-shirts, dyed his hair purple, picked fights with Christian fundamentalists and made out with boys in front of school. (Appelbaum identifies himself as "queer," though he refers to at least a dozen female lovers in nearly as many countries.) When a friend's father encouraged his interest in computers and taught him basic programming tools, something opened up for Appelbaum. Programming and hacking allowed him "to feel like the world was not a lost place. The Internet is the only reason I'm alive today."

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