Jacob Appelbaum has courted controversy throughout his career as a privacy and transparency activist, picking fights with several of the world’s most powerful government agencies over surveillance and state secrecy. Now he’s at the center of an entirely different sort of controversy: accused of rampant sexual and emotional abuse.
On Saturday, the privacy-focused non-profit Tor Project where Appelbaum held a position as a developer and activist released a statement explaining that Appelbaum had resigned from his position with the group as a result of a series of “serious, public allegations of sexual mistreatment” made by unnamed victims against 33-year-old Appelbaum. An anonymous website collecting testimonials from those alleged victims published the same day, with five victims detailing claims that range from uninvited groping and kissing to rape.
On Monday morning, Appelbaum responded to the accusations in a statement, calling them “a calculated and targeted attack [that] has been launched to spread vicious and spurious allegations against me.” He added, “I want to be clear: the accusations of criminal sexual misconduct against me are entirely false.” His publicist Claudia Tomassini responded to WIRED’s request for comment from Appelbaum to say that his “legal team is working on an injunction against these monstrous and factually incorrect accusations.”
WIRED couldn’t independently verify the stories on the website created by Appelbaum’s accusers, who used pseudonyms, nor determine the creator of the site itself. But Andrea Shephard, a Berlin-based developer co-worker of Appelbaum’s at the Tor Project, says the site was created by a “longtime member of the Tor community” whom she knows and trusts. Shephard also says she’s spoken directly with one of Appelbaum’s alleged victims, who told Shephard in February of this year that Appelbaum had raped him or her. “Sadly…I think it’s the damn truth. He’s a charismatic, socially dominant manipulator,” Shephard writes to WIRED. “I absolutely believe the accusers.”
Shephard says that Tor’s management had suspected Appelbaum of sexual misconduct for months. And the revelation of another alleged victim in recent weeks had accelerated calls to force his resignation from the organization, a push led by Tor’s executive Director Shari Steele. The Tor Project’s statement, written by Steele herself, echoed that timeline. “These types of allegations were not entirely new to everybody at Tor; they were consistent with rumors some of us had been hearing for some time. That said, the most recent allegations are much more serious and concrete than anything we had heard previously,” Steele writes. “We are deeply troubled by these accounts.”
For years, Appelbaum has held near-rockstar status within the hacker community. In 2010 he keynoted the HOPE hacker conference, outing himself as a collaborator with WikiLeaks—its only publicly known American staffer—just as it was ramping up its record-breaking Pentagon and State Department leaks. (A Rolling Stone magazine profile a couple of months later called him “the most dangerous man in cyberspace.”)
Likely as a result of his WikiLeaks work, Google and his internet service provider Sonic.net received subpoenas for Appelbaum’s communications as part of a grand jury investigation in 2011. Appelbaum wasn’t indicted, but has said that he was repeatedly harassed and detained at U.S. border crossings by agents of the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection. To avoid run-ins with the American government, he moved to Berlin. As a hacker exile he’s continued to work for Tor and also contributed to the analysis and publication of NSA leaker Edward Snowden’s classified documents, as well as other surveillance investigations in the German newspaper Der Spiegel.
But Shephard, who also lives in Berlin, says she could see a pattern of troubling behavior that led her to distance herself from Appelbaum. In 2013, she recalls, Appelbaum told Shephard in a bar in front of another colleague that he was going to have sex with her, using a misogynistic phrase. In late 2014, she says he aggressively snatched a phone out of her hands at a hacker conference. And in the spring of last year she says he was suspended from his position at Tor for two weeks without pay due to a harassment incident.
A Familiar Pattern
The scandal’s implications could go well beyond the Tor Project, which maintains the highly-regarded Tor anonymity software. It also highlights the broader hacker community’s long-running problem with sexism and sexual harassment. The notion, as Tor’s executive director Steele wrote, that rumors about Appelbaum weren’t new but had been ignored, portrays a community that turns a blind eye to the inequality or even mistreatment of women. As University of Pennsylvania’s well-known computer security professor Matt Blaze wrote on Twitter, “our community (larger than Tor) failed badly here.”
Tor’s executive director Steele, meanwhile, urged in her note about Appelbaum that anyone who thinks they may be a victim of criminal behavior should talk to law enforcement. “Going forward, we want the Tor community to be a place where all participants can feel safe and supported in their work,” she added. “We are committed to doing better in the future.”