Hi. I’m Nick Farr. (@nickf4rr)
I used to be a pretty effective organizer working behind the scenes at Hacker Events in Europe and on various projects back in the USA. After a deliberate campaign of abuse orchestrated by Jake Appelbaum at the 30c3, I don’t feel safe or welcome in the community anymore. In fact, I physically shut down every time I get close to going back.
I’m both relieved to talk about it and ashamed that it took me this long.
Jake has targeted, abused and silenced many close friends of mine, many of whom are researchers you probably know and respect. Whether it’s ripping off research or just harassing someone into submission, somehow we all felt powerless to do anything about it. He’s the perfect bully.
Every criticism of him is met with suspicion, every accusation is some government-conspiracy-takedown.
Those that tried to stand up to him were destroyed, one even took his own life after Jake stole his research. But that’s not my story to tell. In the scope of people Jake has targeted, of the number of stories that have emerged in the wake of his departure from Tor, my story is fairly benign. I suppose that’s why I have the luxury of attaching my name and face to my story.
My first Chaos Communications Congress was the 23c3 in Berlin. The annual C3s and biennial European Hacker Camps are the finest gathering of folks working in all kinds of technology all around the world. From the crew that first jailbroke the iPhone to Julian Assange’s first Wikileaks speech and in literally thousands of other ways it’s hard to overestimate the impact the C3s and Camps have had on our world today. These events are probably the world’s last true “Hacker” gatherings, not having been co-opted by the Network Security or Startup industries.
I was invited to the 23c3 on account of my work in the US. Being there, being in that open, inclusive, chaotic, intensely creative and amazingly enthusiastic environment with thousands of passionate hackers renewed my faith in the community to do good work on a global scale. I encourage everyone to go to experience it. Complete newbies and the most accomplished Hackers in the world talk about their first Camp or Congress with the same level of enthusiasm and hope, a feeling hard to describe and unique to those events and that culture in particular.
Only a few months after attending the 23c3, I’d be dragging 40 Americans from DEFCON to the 2007 CCC Camp on the first Hackers on a Plane. I wanted everyone I knew and then some to experience what was happening in Europe.
Jake was on that trip and pretty much every person on that trip can tell you what an epic asshole he was. Where everyone else contributed something to making the trip a better event, Jake destroyed whatever he needed to in order to gain more fame for himself.
At that time, Jake couldn’t overshadow the awesomeness of the Camp and the burgeoning Hackerspace scene I started working on back at home. Over the years of doing that (HacDC, Unallocated Space, NYCResistor, etc.) I enjoyed coming back to Europe to help organize whatever needed organizing. It was a way of recharging, taking in the amazing energy at those events in Germany and the Netherlands.
One of the many things I used to help out with were the Lightning Talks. From the 27c3 onward, I coordinated and emceed these sessions where anyone could speak about whatever they wanted for 5 minutes or less. The format that I developed over the years is basically what they use today. If you could follow basic directions, I did whatever I could to get you on stage to say what you had to say.
Part of this open policy meant dealing with folks who may not be entirely stable. Often, these folks would end up not following basic directions and they’d fall off the schedule for that reason. Generally, they accepted that and trusted I was not trying to silence them, I was just being fair.
One person following this pattern submitted an LT proposal alleging that Jake was a US Intelligence Operative. I LOLed. After a few rounds of encrypted e-mail pestering and a few texts, they insisted on being put on the schedule. I did so to appease, as was my strategy at the time, with every intention of pulling them off after they inevitably failed to follow directions. You can go look at the wiki histories for any LT I organized to show this was what I often did with dubious presentations. Organizing the LTs, answering e-mails, checking slides and confirming with each presenter took nearly 3 hours for every hour of LTs and a lot of that work happened while I was still in NYC, weeks before the event. I often went to bed well after 2 AM the nights leading up to my flight out to Europe and I wanted to be done with this fool and get some sleep.
The next day I wake up to an e-mail from Jake, followed by e-mails from very important people in the CCC chastising me for what I had done to Jake’s reputation. Jake demanded all the records I had received from this person. Jake also had the CCC edit the 30c3 wiki database to eliminate any trace of the offending talk.
Because the last thing anyone needs is to be targeted by Jake, I purged everything this person had sent and refused to hand over anything on privacy grounds. I explained what my reasoning was for doing what I did, was chastised further, let it go and considered the matter over.
But really, I thought, why would Jake be so defensive about some random LT that might have otherwise gone completely unnoticed? If I were a government operative hell-bent on destroying the global hacker community, what would I do differently from what Jake is doing now?
Once I arrived at the 30c3, not more than 10 minutes went by before Jake himself comes and accosts me, warning “there will be severe consequences” unless I hand over everything this person sent. I told him that I no longer had the records he sought, but that simply wasn’t good enough. Without warning, several times each day throughout the 30c3, Jake or one of his proxies would find me to say the same thing. Each time, no matter who I was with or how long they had known me, I was made out to be the one “causing drama”, bringing down the good feelings of whatever group I happened to be around.
Every night, I came back to my hotel room, a typewritten note on my pillow stating, “Don’t make us use extreme measures. Hand it all over.”
I tried to reach out to people I thought I could trust. I tried to tell them what was going on. I tried showing them. I told Jake very calmly when he approached that he needed to stop harassing me. Everyone I talked to told me to just give him what he wanted, to “dialogue” with him to “find a solution” and to “stop creating drama”.
You can’t dialogue with a sociopath. What’s worse is when people you consider your trusted friends take the sociopath’s side.
At that point, I was rather well known, I had earned a pretty good deal of social capital, thousands of Twitter followers from Europe and the confidence that people knew me and trusted me. But none of that mattered, Jake was a rockstar whose followers went to great lengths to make me feel unsafe and unwelcome in the very place I felt most at home in the entire world.
By the last night of the 30c3, after one last ditch effort to get Jake and his cronies off my back was rebuffed, it got to be too much. I physically could not take it anymore, handed in my badges and phone and left with no intention of returning. It was only with a lot of support from 3 friends, including another another victim of his abuse, that I was able to fulfill my commitment to show up for the last day of the LTs.
After breaking my back the following August, my doctors had cleared me to travel internationally by the time the 31c3 was coming around. When it came time to actually figure out the logistics, my body shut down. While there was a lot physically wrong with me, the doctors told me that what ailed me was very likely stress-related. I had long since repressed why this was happening, chalked it up to my pain medication, really anything other than what I had experienced on account of Jake. But in retrospect, it makes a lot of sense why I physically couldn’t bring myself to go. One measure of the support I enjoyed and recognition of my work was the hundreds of get well soon postcards I received from well-wishers at the 31c3, cards I still cherish today.
But even with the encouragement of hundreds in my hands, I couldn’t physically bring myself to go to the 2015 Camp. I tweeted about a “diagnosis” to avoid “creating drama” but the truth of the matter was by that point, the damage was done. Jake destroyed those events for me, and I didn’t even consciously realize it until I started writing out this story. Ironically, I feel safe thinking and writing about this only after seeing others come forward with their stories of what Jake did to them.
While I am truly humbled and honored by all of you who have asked me to come back, I want to be part of a community where this kind of behavior isn’t tolerated from the inception. I want to be part of a community where incidents like this are addressed promptly and fairly and not dismissed as “drama”. Admittedly, I could have done more to make this happen when I was part of the community and I did not. There were victims whose accusations I treated much like the folks then treated mine, ones I swept under the rug in the name of what I thought to be the greater good.
Had I stood up for them, maybe someone would have stood up for me.