In the spring of this year, before Wikileaks unleashed a flood of secret U.S. government documents, Rolling Stone met with “hacktivist” Jacob Appelbaum, a volunteer for the organization and a die-hard true believer in freedom of speech and personal privacy. Reporter Nathaniel Rich learned about Appelbaum’s troubled childhood, his first forays into activism — in 2005, he set up unauthorized satellite internet connections in Iraq and, right after Hurricane Katrina, in one of New Orleans’s poorest neighborhoods — and his growth into a global force for his beliefs.
Appelbaum is the public face of Tor Project, an organization that, by introducing intermediaries between computers, is used to prevent some of the world’s most repressive regimes from tracking activists’ movements online. Dissidents from China, Tunisia and a suspected high-level member of the Iranian military have used it to protect their identities.
While Appelbaum’s work for Tor has been substantial, more notorious is his extensive work for Wikileaks. “Jake has been a tireless promoter behind the scenes of our cause,” founder Julian Assange said.
The Wikileaks controversy has led Appelbaum to go underground, using Tor to protect himself and evade surveillance. He’s set about living a life of anonymity, one where his mail is sent to a private drop, he pays rent in cash, and he doesn’t enter his home address into any computer.
“You can never take that information back once it’s out there,” he said. “And it takes very little information to ruin a person’s life.”