Right now, my inbox holds media requests from Buzzfeed, Daily Dot, Guardian, Associated Press, and newly, La Repubblica, Italy’s largest newspaper. They are working on stories about Jacob Appelbaum. Specifically, his history in tech and hacking as it relates to his harassment and abuse of others, and the astonishingly widening pool of victims and witnesses coming forward in the past ten days.
Most of the outlets are having a hard time wrapping their heads around how this could go on so long within arenas whose missions are to fight against injustice and power imbalances, and to champion whistleblowers. One might think these organizations were hypocrites, or worse. Some of the articles lean toward framing hacking and tech, our communities, businesses, and conferences, as places where sexual abuse and harassment is rampant and abusers are institutionally protected.
To understand why they’re not entirely wrong, why this was allowed to continue for so long, and how we make sure this ends here, we need to examine some difficult things.
Two weeks ago Tor Project evangelist (“lead developer“) Jacob Appelbaum, a frequent representative for Wikileaks/Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, resigned from Tor Project. When Tor was mum on reasons, infosec community pressure prompted Tor to make a statement. It said Appelbaum had been accused of sexual misconduct, and admitted that these issues had been known about for years. A website sprung up encouraging anonymous submissions by victims. Soon after, several people came forth with stories, and not all of them anonymous. They detailed incidents of sexual harassment, rape, stalking, personal threats, and more.
Appelbaum issued a denial. The denial was summarily skewered by a Tor community member. The publicist for Appelbaum suggested there would be legal repercussions for libel, but soon walked back that statement. Tor Project’s director went on to tell Wired that someone was indeed raped, that the project is working with legal, and that she “absolutely believes” the victim. One separate story of Appebaum’s harassment was refuted, and the motivations of the refutation have been called into question. Another website appeared, comprised of women pledging their support of Appelbaum; Daily Dot has since raised significant questions for the people involved in this website.
More witnesses and stories have surfaced since. These include Bill Budington of the EFF, Micah Lee of the Intercept, Nick Farr, Quinn Norton, Leigh Honeywell, Alison Macrina, Andrea Shepard, Meredith Patterson, and Isis Agora Lovecruft.
The question we have to ask is, how many more are there?
I met Jake in early 2005. He hung around a few different branches of the hacker scenes I was in and around. The joke about him, told to me as a cautionary comment by one of the Codecon/early BitTorrent guys, was that everyone said he was a “recovering mysoginist.” Meaning, he was not recovering, and was quite the opposite. He had a reputation for not being able to keep a job for long, and for leaving them on ‘scorched earth’ terms.
He tried, in a variety of ways and in different situations and parties and events, to convince me to have sex with him. I said no over and over, and as time went by, he became angrier and angrier with me. I was working with an arts organization during those years, and we ended up kicking him out of our machine shop. The only other person who held that status because of persistent sexual harassment on multiple crew members was Captain Crunch (John Draper). And there is a huge parallel here with both of these men, and the hacking community’s unwillingness to deal with men like this, especially when they are “famous.”
Like with all guys who start to treat you like shit when you won’t put out, I generally avoided him and the parties and events he went to.
Appelbaum got a job working at Kink.com around 2006, when the company was still at its old location. It was a very different company back then, and had a very warm, accessible, and lively community and culture. At the old Mission Street location, Kink would open its doors at 5pm for happy hour on Fridays, and it was a friends and family thing. I’d known Peter Acworth since long before Appelbaum was hired, and we have always been friends. Also at that time, Good Vibrations (my former employer) was two blocks away, and there was so much hiring between the companies it was almost like there was an exchange program going on — so I knew a lot of people who worked there, and still do to this day. Also at this time, the San Francisco Chronicle was one block away, where I was the resident sex columnist. All of these things contributed to the fact that I was a regular at Kink’s happy hour, when they’d open the “bar” set as a sort-of club for employees and friends to unwind, with beer and wine.
At these happy hours, employees could give “tours” to friends, where they’d take a group of people around to the different sets and the set-building areas. You could grab a beer in the bar set, and go check out the fake foam floors that looked just like wood in the fake barn set, and come back to the bar with a twig of (real) hay in your teeth like a happy pervy tourist. It was fun. Often, the machine and wood shop set-building areas were where employees in a metal band would be having their Friday band practice.
When Jake got hired, he started giving tours. I only went on one of them. I had invited my editor and colleagues from the Chronicle to that happy hour, and we decided to go with him when Jake began leading people through the buildings for his tour. Kink’s main offices at that time were a wide, open-plan floor, with no walls and rows of desks. I was standing with my Chronicle editor, Eve Batey, when Jake told the group he fucked the models, and that he’d ejaculate under or around the desk of someone he didn’t like. He joked, “Don’t drop your muffin, buddy!” And that’s when Eve and I bailed out.
At a happy hour after that, I remember Jake calling to me from across the room (the bar set) so he could introduce me to a couple of friends. They were two male hackers, one who was (and still is) very well-known. Jake said, “Guys, this is Violet Blue. She gives great head.” I was caught by surprise and mad as hell. He was trying to sexually humiliate me as an introduction to these peers with a lie. The men stood there in uncomfortable silence, looking everywhere but at me. I turned to Jake and said, “I think you have me confused with a certain blonde blogger,” and told the men it was nice to meet them, and I left.
This is one of his most common attacks: Lying about fucking someone in a public declaration to their face and in front of their colleagues. Humiliating the target while attempting to violate her privacy.
I’m far from alone. Isis Lovecruft wrote, “He even went so far as to, on the very first [Tor Project] meeting on the first morning, in front of all the other developers — whom I had not yet met — tell me that he was okay with my partner and I fucking in the same bed as him while he watched, causing both of my partner and I to feel completely humiliated that our private sex life was being discussed in front of colleagues we had hoped to build a good start towards friendly, professional relationships.”
Buzzfeed called this Appelbaum’s ongoing tactic to make “public and false claims that he had sex with” whoever his target was. They reported this was “something multiple sources have told BuzzFeed News Appelbaum has ‘done to too many people to count.’”
Let me repeat: Intimate privacy violations publicly enacted on “too many people to count.” At institutions that champion privacy and attract those who need it the most.
Appelbaum has always attempted to make the hacker scene, and especially the zeitgeist of the hacktivist stage, his own. When Wikileaks happened, he publicly fashioned himself as a lieutenant. And as the voice of Julian Assange, presenting Assange’s CCC keynote and representing the man or that work, or being the gatekeeper, “evangelist” or public persona, whenever possible. He did the same to become part of, and endeavored to become synonymous with, the Edward Snowden documents, also making himself a representative of Snowden and accepting an award on his behalf, and again, a gatekeeper of this arena. Similarly with the Tor Project. He has also aligned himself with the Freedom of the Press Foundation and CCC. He holds secrets belonging to these people and these organizations, and has made himself very powerful.
These are causes, not just jobs or consulting gigs. They are symbols for fighting injustice, and crusading for those at risk of exploitation. Their reputations are fraught and fragile. To attack a person in them is to attack the movement. They are also male-dominated organizations, in the male-dominated realm of hacking, where very few of the men are willing to accept that their hacker heroes, team bosses, and conference buddies might be doing really, really fucked up things to women.
The question is, how long have authority figures at these causes known? Certainly Tor’s Roger Dingledine must have, and for quite a while.
Kink leadership dealt with the problem head-on. Jake almost literally ran out of Kink after they confronted him, leaving in his wake a lot of stories about employee rulebook changes being created to stop his inappropriate sexual antics, job performance issues … His flaming exit was made complete with a ragey email sent to the entire company before they locked him out of the system, and a bizarre public sexual proposition to a section manager (“you should really let me fuck your wife”) in front of a team. Scorched earth at the Armory. When the Tor Project statement hit on June 4, people from both Kink and that era of the SF Chronicle contacted me, recounting these incidents.
Outside of Kink, in 2007, Jake had sexually targeted a female friend of mine. Her and I were going to a large tech party in December; I think it was a Wikimedia party, and Jimmy Wales was there. My friend was feeling hunted by Jake, and early in the party she said he was trying to isolate her, and told me she was scared. She is not a big or strong girl, nor is she loud, and he was trying to convince her to go into a stairwell with him. The convincing turned into trying to pull her away physically, grabbing at her hands. I locked my arm with hers, and put myself in between her and Jake. All while he was trying to reach around me, while he was telling me to let go. I said No, she’s not going with you. I insisted a bit louder, No. He was livid.
The next time I saw him was at a friend’s engagement party, 2009. I was standing alone in a hallway waiting for the bathroom. Jake walked up and stood over me, glaring down into my eyes with what my date described as pure hate. I refused to move, I would not look away, and I stood my ground. He wouldn’t stop, and exhaled over me with a guttural sound. My date saw it happen from the next room. When he started to walk over, Jake then continued on his way down the hall. My date asked if I was okay and then said to me, “That’s it. Let’s get you out of here.”
These are not all of the stories. He repeated his 2009 behavior in passing at 30c3 when he ran into me in a stairwell, and the next day made a threat about me behind closed doors to a close friend. At CCC, where he is seen as the golden boy, the star of their stage.
Following the initial statement from Tor Project, and all the subsequent reactions, internal documents were leaked from Tor Project.
One was an email describing behavior that created a sexually hostile workplace. In a position of authority as a session leader for the Tor Project, Appelbaum told a group that new members were sexually recruited and vetted by him. Noting that he was already on notice for sexual misconduct, Tom Lekrone wrote that he’d confronted Jake about bragging that he was a sexual gatekeeper for Tor . Appelbaum replied to Lekrone saying that his “sexualized recruitment ‘strategy’ had ‘worked’ with the complainant.” Meaning, Jake not only told Lekrone he’d fucked the person who complained, but that their issue wasn’t valid because if Jake hadn’t fucked them into the organization in the first place, they wouldn’t even be there to complain about it.*
Professor Wolf, one of the lambs has an issue with your recruitment strategy.
But apparently, they still thought Jake was doing good work for the Tor Project. The letter continued,
“We believe that, given the commitment to the Tor Project that you have demonstrated and Tor Project’s ability and willingness to support your further development, there is a strong likelihood that the employment relationship will be able to move forward in positive and productive directions.”
That same day Buzzfeed reported that Tor Project authorities “knew about Appelbaum’s inappropriate behavior, and for more than a year.” Sue Gardner said her friends “had been asking her why she was working with an organization that employs a rapist.” The article said “stories of sexual harassment — and worse — came to light at an emotional board dinner.”
The dinner was at a conference where stories of Appelbaum’s sexual harassment were the talk of the conference. Attempting to appeal to Tor Project authorities for help, Karen Reilly told Roger Dingledine, Wendy Seltzer, Andrew Lewman, and Gardner about “serial sexual and professional harassment” by Appelbaum.
While this was happening, a group of victims planned an amateur intervention, and Jake found out. Isis Lovecruft had helped to try and organize the failed intervention, and wrote that Jake went after each individual, then confronted her.
“Jake described all the time, effort, and ways he was using in order to completely ruin someone’s life who had attempted to stand up to him, as well as previous ways he had managed to get someone fired from their position and ostracised. He pointedly mentioned, several times, the names of multiple people who he had destroyed in the past for standing against him. In his current efforts to harass one of these people — which through backchannels I was already aware of, he said, “I’ve literally been spending 15 hours a day on this.”
Not knowing about the threat, but full well knowing for some time about the sexual harassment and abuse, “Tor conducted a human resources inquiry into the matter. Both Appelbaum and Reilly were given the option of taking a 10-day suspension or leaving the company with severance.”
For performing the role of whistleblower, Reilly faced this punishment “for spreading rumors about the Tor Project.” Unsurprisingly, she quit.
Appelbaum remained with the organization. Buzzfeed reported that in deliberation on what to do with Appelbaum, “It was a close call as to whether his benefits outweighed his liabilities.”
Let me explain something.
When harassment, sexual or otherwise, requires a cost-benefit analysis, you have failed.
You have failed your co-workers, your employees, your friends, the people you claim to serve with your work, and you have failed the future.
Not too long ago, a researcher made a presentation that generated a lot of false headlines. I called it out in an article, confused as to why no one else had. He harassed and abused me around the clock for days online, and very publicly; he tried to get me fired in revenge, and didn’t hide it. He wrote a crazy screed or two about me, and did interviews about harassing me, proud of his work.
After some time went by, one of my guy friends started retweeting him and quoting him. Many women know what this feels like. By validating the abuser, acts like these invalidate being terrorized in the eyes of your peers, and you find out the hard way that your friend is not really your friend. An arena closed off.
I sent my friend a direct message. I said, hey, don’t you remember what this guy did to me? How can you retweet him in a show of support when you saw what he did to me? My friend replied, “But he does good work.”
No. When someone harasses, humiliates, discounts, abuses, threatens, stalks, takes action to harm someone, no — they do not do good work. And this is one of the biggest problems in hacker culture, and it will always make me and my sisters and LGBT and non-white family unsafe.
If you find out someone is doing any of the things I have described in this essay, their work is not good. There is always, always someone else who can do that work. And that other person will do it better because they are not handicapped by being fucked up.
Appelbaum was allowed to do what he did because there was always someone there to say “but he does good work.” There was never a leader strong enough to stand up to him. Groups are easy to divide and conquer. Jake could always find people who didn’t know him, and sought out newcomers, so word of mouth warnings only helped those already connected.
Maybe they knew, or maybe they didn’t care enough to vet him, but CCC and Assange and Snowden gave him power and that needs to be part of this conversation, because we need look no further for proof that hero worship and the cult of belief is pure poison. He convinced people to trust him with secrets, like docs, and threatened the unthinkable if cornered. Jake also benefited greatly — and I can’t stress this enough — from journalists who did not check their facts, reporters who bought into his bullshit persecuted-hacker narrative, and blogs like Boing Boing who breathlessly starfucked his appropriated hacks and docs and reprehensible behavior into credibility.
This didn’t happen because we’re broken as a hacker culture, or because we’re hackers and thus too undeveloped to comprehend empathy. People like Jake can be found in other places; priests and churches, Hollywood, the porn industry, and more. Wherever power imbalances, hero worship, and secret-keepers intersect. People like Jake are found in hacker culture, too, and it’s past time for hacker culture to deal with it.
These “moving forward” steps are highly recommended.
Edited 06/16/16 4:39pm PST: Typo fixed in “Patterson” / added missing word “to” (“to stand up to”).
- Update July 5, 2016: I have been contacted by the person who lodged the complaint as revealed in the Tor Project email. This person has informed me that what Jake said to Lekrone was, in fact, a lie. This was yet another instance of Appelbaum’s tactic (as reported by Buzzfeed) to make public and false claims about having sex with whoever his target was.
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