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03 June 2014

If he were a spy

I looked for answers on Quora, a question-and-answer website.

Is Jacob Appelbaum a U.S. government employee?

He gets a huge salary from the Tor Project but mostly jets around the world, more lavishly than celebrities and movie stars. His home is chic, minimalist but opulent according to Rolling Stone. He posed with semi-automatic firearms in Iraq in 2008. He parties ALL the time, based on his flickr photographs. [These photos are no longer visible other than to logged-in flickr users with adult content viewing enabled. I embedded a few as part of my question on the Quora website and question comments.]

The question doesn't really seem to follow from the details, Ellie?

Granted, but maybe this will help to explain. Tor is a former US government project. Jacob works, or worked for Tor. I was trying to avoid asking directly whether Jacob were a spy. That would be indiscreet, so I said "US government employee" instead.

Jacob has more fans and cart blanche globally than, well, I don't even know who to compare with him. He is like the Larry Ellison or Eric Schmidt of crypto fandom, but without any visible means of support. I don't see his name on the cryptography research server IACR as an author, nor any ACM nor IEEE scholarly journals, not even the Financial Cryptography conference.

ioerror is, well, to make an analogy, like the subversive version of Google's Jared Cohen. ioerror is the cool kids' hero, so to speak.

Martin Strohmeier
I saw him speak in front of the cream of the crop of the world's academic security researchers (and me) last fall at CCS in Berlin. I sure got the impression that he resonated there quite well. I don't know that much more about him though. He partied like everyone else, just a tad bit more paranoid.

Ellie Kesselman
He speaks all over the world! If there's a political uprising or controversy, ioerror is boots on the ground, at the scene, but never in the U.S.A. He is like the rock star of crypto, except he isn't affiliated with a company, nor a university, nor the Berkman Center at Harvard or EFF.

He always has lots of trappings of material success, nice clothes, hordes of women etc. Look at this! "The Sheik, Emir Appelbaum, Doha fashion victim". That is atypical, for security researchers, isn't it?

Martin Strohmeier
As for academic papers, many of these independent researchers can't be bothered to go through the long publishing processes in academia but prefer to present their work at hacker conferences such as Defcon, Black Hat, C3 etc. Looking through Google Scholar such an example would be "MD5 considered harmful today" presented at 25c3. The authors later published at CRYPTO 2009, a top tier security conference.

Besides those, he got his name on a USENIX Security Workshop paper and a Communications of the ACM article (Lest we remember), solid outlets.

Ellie Kesselman
Matthew Green, Mikko Hypponen and IBMer Craig Gentry, who figured out homomorphic encryption, aren't feted like ioerror.

Martin Strohmeier
Hypponen had a talk at that same CCS last fall, he's quite prolific, too. There are bigger security superstars still, Bruce Schneier comes to mind. It's never totally clear to me what makes someone an Internet superstar in any field, to be honest. Especially those Social Media gurus.

One thing I know though: Appelbaum is an extremely good orator (haven't really followed his Internet activity but if he's everywhere that's surely explaining his popularity). Speaking engagements are something that brings in quite some money for many people. At the very least you're being paid the travel cost to quite often pretty amazing destinations...


Adrián Lamo responded to my question Quora. His answer puzzles me.
"Jacob Raven Appelbaum isn't a USG employee, though I have no idea whether or not he may have technically been/contracted at some point in Tor's early Naval Research Laboratory funding.

This question reads more like a love-letter-by-proxy to Appelbaum than a sincere desire for information, and I'm not the only person in the security community who sees this trend in public palaverous platitudes.
No political climate lasts forever. Jens Karney once believed Berlin would protect him indefinitely. I guess Jake figures he should have fun while the opportunity remains available."
Adrián seems to infer that I am praising Jacob. That isn't true at all though! The inline link to Jens Karney is a melancholy Der Spiegel Online news story about an American who became a spy for East Germany during the last decade of the Soviet Union.

In the end, I am left with more questions, but no answers.

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