Not Working for Us

Written at 33c3 in Hamburg
December 28, 2016

TW: discussion of rape, manipulative behavior, consent violations galore

Our community has suffered an attack; we can and should build more resilient and safer systems in response.

The first time I met Jake in person was in the hallway at a con in 2005. I was typing something with my laptop balanced on my knees when he walked by after getting offstage, and I asked a question. After answering, he looked at my laptop screen and asked “What OS is that?” to which I replied “Debian with fvwm”. He chuckled, grabbed the laptop out of my hands and typed a few things, then handed it back to me. This casual violation of boundaries is perhaps the defining characteristic of life with Jake.

I decided to engage with this strangely transgressive human. “It’s going to be like that, then, eh? Ok,” I thought to myself. I could handle this, and it seemed like it might be fun and educational.

I didn’t stop to think about the implications for others around me.

The catalog of transgressions grew over the years… rules broken; stories of escapades versus HR departments, (black|grey|white) hat hackers, police officers, homophobes in bars, and then eventually federal agencies, and (perhaps) intelligence agencies.

“Jake, you finally upgraded your adversaries to match your paranoia,” a friend said during the early days of the WikiLeaks grand jury investigation.

My benefits from our friendship were: Introductions to interesting folks, invitations to dinners featuring spectacularly weird hacker conversations, being talked up as a l33t kernel haxxor whenever Jake introduced me, and a wide variety of absurd travel shenanigans. Being his friend gave me a thrill when he’d go on stage to present work like Coldboot, or advocate for Tor.

The benefits extended to the personal as well. Jake invited me to sex parties, and I enthusiastically attended, and made friendships there that persist to this day. Some of those parties didn’t have any problems (that I noticed). But sometimes I saw interactions that made me uncomfortable. Sometimes I participated in questionable activities. Everybody in the room said “yes” in the moment — sometimes after discussion, sometimes with their body language screaming “no”. Jake and I never talked about those situations.

Benefits accrued to organizations as well. It became routine for CCC to be mentioned above the fold in the NYT each Congress season. Noisebridge (co-founded by Jake) attained a certain fame, then a notoriety. It was exciting, but we saw the problems. We even called them out occasionally, but for years I said to myself, “he’s problematic but he does good work and his negative behavior is part and parcel of the special gift that makes him so effective.” Many others excused what they saw with a similar calculus.

Being friends with Jake had worked for me. But “Works For Me” isn’t good enough. I’d privately warned women not to date him, but I wasn’t confronting the problems. I was covering them, hiding from them.

This past June, I read jacobappelbaum.net, and saw descriptions from the survivors of behavior that I’d been present for, identified as fucked up, and didn’t say anything about. I saw descriptions of behaviors that I wasn’t present for, but that echoed problematic scenes I did see. The moment of emotional clarity for me was reading how an interaction I had coded as “consensual though domineering,” was more usefully called “coerced consent,” (my own phrase) for the behavior pattern I saw Jake use over and over to get his way with women.

Having four recognizable stories in front of me, from women I knew as friends and who I trust as reliable witnesses of their lived experience, made something crack inside me. I’d heard women accuse Jake before. We always needed to “hear both sides of the story” and “give the accused the benefit of the doubt”; somehow, those interactions always ended up with Jake walking away consequence-free and with no long term change in his behavior. This time could be different.

It took me a few days to start to engage with my responsibility for the things that Jake had done. One friend helped enormously when she reminded me that she’d told me, years before, that Jake had raped one of her friends. When I heard that in June, I was shocked — had she really told me that, years before? I meticulously reconstructed my memory of that conversation — and realized that my memory had a hole in the relevant moment. I remembered the beginning of the conversation; I remembered the end because she friend-dumped me right then and there. But I’d suppressed the uncomfortable truth she’d shared about Jake.

I have realized, in the aftermath, that I have a lot of work to do on myself. I knew that I’d hurt people directly, as well as enabling Jake to hurt people, and those behaviors are two sides of a coin. I don’t know who I did hurt — I had a long list of possibles, but it would be an act of incredible entitlement to reach out to a woman I hadn’t talked to in years to ask “hey, that time we had sex at Jake’s party, was it abusive? How do you feel about it now?” I wouldn’t even be able to take comfort from a “no, it’s fine”; afraid that a woman who just wants the problem to go away will tell me what she thinks I want to hear.

Many years ago I promised Jake that while we have our ups and downs, I had been a constant friend to him, and that I would remain true. I’m bad at severing ties once formed. I know in my heart that I will always care for him. But I know now with cold clarity that my friend is also a serial abuser and is currently unrepentant about the damage he’s done. He’s trying to save what remains of his position, and is willing to use all of his skills in the service of that goal.

I spent two weeks in Berlin during August, and had the first round of some of the hard conversations that are happening here at 33C3. Those conversations, even when I couldn’t see eye to eye with my interlocutor, left me with a feeling of hope that we as a community could find a way forward.

On nearly my last day in Berlin, Jake and I finally met. We talked and walked the wall for many hours. Two facets of our conversation struck me with grotesque clarity. The first was the moment when I realized that he was using the language of restorative justice to gain power over others, not to reform. The other was the realization that he was threatening me by “sharing his concern” that I was “behaving irrationally” because, he said, I was worried about being criminally prosecuted for a specific act I’d done. In that moment, I realized that a member of Jake’s inner circle I’d talked to the previous week had hinted at the same concern, priming me to be afraid when Jake brought it up in this conversation. The unvoiced threat I understood was that Jake was willing to (directly or via proxies) coordinate the initiation of a police investigation, leak it to a friendly journalist, and destroy my life if I talked.

We ended with a hug and a promise to engage again.

Weeks later, a German journalist published a long, well-sourced story, clearly (to me) coordinated by Jake or one of his circle, casually describing Jake providing illegal drugs to party attendees. The sword, it seems, is out of its sheath.

The 33rd Chaos Communications Congress in Hamburg is the first time I have talked about this publicly, and our community has openly faced “the Jake Situation.” But this isn’t just about Jake; our communities have hosted many abusive behaviors and failed to respond to them. The delay in recognizing and dealing with the problem enabled cycles of abuse, and the alienation and exclusion of far too many potential community members. The problematic behaviors never end with one person; while the majority of public discussion in the past six months has been about Jake, I’ve heard plenty of stories of icky behavior, and a few cases of repeated problems with other individuals. I’ve also heard good stories of successful applications of restorative justice in our community.

My purpose in writing this is threefold: I want to encourage people to talk to me about this if they would like to (and I will try to schedule a room on Day 4 for a group conversation if there is interest). I want to encourage conversations in all of our interwoven communities about how we can respond better to problems, and learn from what happened this time. And finally, I want to tell my story so that others in a similar situation have a chance to recognize and respond better than I did.

The first step to rebuilding trust in any system after a compromise is understanding the cause. A community dealing with a problem might exclude a single individual, as we have with Jake. The community can build consensus that particular behaviors are unacceptable. Looking at patterns of interactions to see how problems could have been identified earlier, asking if there are other folks misbehaving. We can ask if the behavior of “good” members of the community encourages (explicitly or tacitly) misbehavior. We can makes sure that people have useful and safe channels to report abuse. And it’s important to note that “good people” sometimes do bad things. We need ways to tell that creepy guy on the dance floor that his behavior is not cool, without it having to rise to the level of official involvement. And we need ways to officially address an isolated incident without every censure becoming expulsion.

The Jake Situation is exceptional: in duration, severity of abuse, and number of targets. (I have heard at least 20 distinct first-hand stories and I haven’t even started asking around. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are 100 victims.) By contrast, many abusive incidents are one-off rather than serial offenders, and few serial offenders manage to get as far as Jake did. The reaction of our community’s “immune system” was notably severe in this case; rather than doing it this way next time, we need to develop more compassionate systems to deal with problems earlier.

Works For Me is a phrase for people with freedom of action. As a developer, closing a bugreport you can’t reproduce is often the simplest, easiest path forward. I was on that path for too long, as was our community as a whole.