Appelbaum spends much of each year leading Tor training sessions around the world, often conducted in secrecy to protect activists whose lives are in danger. Some, like the sex-worker advocates from Southeast Asia he tutored, had limited knowledge of computers. Others, like a group of students Appelbaum trained at a seminar in Qatar, are highly sophisticated: One worked on the government's censorship network, another works for a national oil company, and a third created an Al-Jazeera message board that allows citizens to post comments anonymously. In Mauritania, the country's military regime was forced to abandon its efforts to censor the Internet after a dissident named Nasser Weddady wrote a guide to Tor in Arabic and distributed it to opposition groups. "Tor rendered the government's efforts completely futile," Weddady says. "They simply didn't have the know-how to counter that move."
In distributing Tor, Appelbaum doesn't distinguish between good guys and bad guys. "I don't know the difference between one theocracy or another in Iran," he says. "What's important to me is that people have communication free from surveillance. Tor shouldn't be thought of as subversive. It should be thought of as a necessity. Everyone everywhere should be able to speak and read and form their own beliefs without being monitored. It should get to a point where Tor is not a threat but is relied upon by all levels of society. When that happens, we win."
As the public face of an organization devoted to anonymity, Appelbaum finds himself in a precarious position. It is in Tor's interest to gain as much publicity as possible — the more people who allow their computers to serve as relays, the better. But he also lives in a state of constant vigilance, worried that his enemies — envious hackers, repressive foreign regimes, his own government — are trying to attack him. His compromise is to employ a two-tiered system. He maintains a Twitter account and has posted thousands of photos on Flickr. Yet he takes extensive measures to prevent any private information — phone numbers, e-mail addresses, names of friends — from appearing.
"There are degrees of privacy," he says. "The normal thing nowadays is to conspicuously report on one another in a way that the Stasi couldn't even dream of. I don't do that. I do not enter my home address into any computer. I pay rent in cash. For every online account, I generate random passwords and create new e-mail addresses. I never write checks, because they're insecure — your routing number and account number are all that are required to empty your bank account. I don't understand why anyone still uses checks. Checks are crazy."
When he travels, if his laptop is out of his sight for any period of time, he destroys it and then throws it away; the concern is that someone might have bugged it. He is often driven to extreme measures to get copies of Tor through customs in foreign countries. "I studied what drug smugglers do," he says. "I wanted to beat them at their own game." He shows me a nickel. Then he slams it on the floor of his apartment. It pops open. Inside there is a tiny eight- gigabyte microSD memory card. It holds a copy of Tor.
As fast as Tor has grown, government surveillance of the Internet has expanded even more rapidly. "It's unbelievable how much power someone has if they have unfettered access to Google's databases," Appelbaum says.
As he is quick to point out, oppressive foreign regimes are only part of the problem. In the past few years, the U.S. government has been quietly accumulating libraries of data on its own citizens. Law enforcement can subpoena your Internet provider for your name, address and phone records. With a court order, they can request the e-mail addresses of anyone with whom you communicate and the websites you visit. Your cellphone provider can track your location at all times.
"It's not just the state," says Appelbaum. "If it wanted to, Google could overthrow any country in the world. Google has enough dirt to destroy every marriage in America."
But doesn't Google provide funding for Tor?
"I love Google," he says. "And I love the people there. Sergey Brin and Larry Page are cool. But I'm terrified of the next generation that takes over. A benevolent dictatorship is still a dictatorship. At some point people are going to realize that Google has everything on everyone. Most of all, they can see what questions you're asking, in real time. Quite literally, they can read your mind."
Now, in the wake of the Wikileaks controversy, Appelbaum has gone underground, concealing his whereabouts from even his closest friends. He suspects his phones are tapped and that he's being followed. A week after being questioned in Newark, he calls me from an undisclosed location, my request to contact him having been passed along through a series of intermediaries. The irony of his situation isn't lost on him.
"I'll be using Tor a lot more than I ever did — and I used it a lot," he says, his voice uncharacteristically sober. "I have become one of the people I have spent the last several years of my life protecting. I better take my own advice."
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