Jacob Appelbaum, Digital Rights Activist, Leaves Tor Amid Sexual Misconduct Allegations


On Thursday, the Tor Project quietly announced the departure of leading digital rights activist Jacob Appelbaum from its board. At first, they didn't say why — now, we know.

On Friday afternoon, members of the cryptography community accused Appelbaum publicly of multiple instances of sexual assault against people in the Tor community, and attributed these accusations to Appelbaum's departure from the Tor Project. 

On Saturday, the Tor Project confirmed in a blog post that complaints of this nature are, in fact, the reason for Appelbaum's departure. Appelbaum is a notorious hacker and activist for digital rights who has worked with both WikiLeaks and the Edward Snowden documents. He is prominent in the cryptography and online activism community, and influential among civil liberties projects and foundations.

"We do not know exactly what happened here," Tor Project executive director Shari Steele wrote. "We don't have all the facts, and we are undertaking several actions to determine them as best as possible. We're also not an investigatory body, and we are uncomfortable making judgments about people's private behaviors."

"That said, after we talked with some of the complainants, and after extensive internal deliberation and discussion," the statement continued, "Jacob stepped down from his position as an employee of the Tor Project."

The accusations: About a week before the Tor Project announced Appelbaum's departure, Andrea Shepard, a developer currently working with the Tor Project, tweeted out a cryptographic hash that can be unlocked with a string of characters with a passphrase.

"A precommitment," she tweeted, with the hash, "bfb9a7c833a5fc8f5a938d816b1bbc4acaa06519fdb1af4c8632719596807dac."

This would be like the computer-science equivalent of putting a message in a bottle and leaving it in public to be potentially revealed later.

Three days later, Appelbaum tweeted the following, potentially alluding to his departure from the Tor Project:

"Changing of the guards."

At midnight on Friday, only hours after the Tor Project announced Appelbaum's departure in a single-sentence blog post, Shepard revealed her tweet's hidden meaning:

"Precommitment revealed: sha256('It seems one rapist is one rapist too many\n')," she tweeted.

Shepard declined by email to elaborate on the meaning of her tweet, and referred us to the Tor Project leadership.

Then on Friday afternoon, technologist and journalist Meredith Patterson openly accused Appelbaum of sexually assaulting multiple people, saying the Tor Project should be more transparent about the reasons Appelbaum was no longer with Tor.

"You don't just kick sociopaths down the road and play like you've done the necessary. That's extending their social license to operate," she tweeted, as well as, "Jake finally raped enough people that Tor as an organization couldn't ignore it anymore."

Patterson, who has connections within the Tor community, told Mic there were multiple accusations against Appelbaum, and the accusers could come forward in the next few days to share their stories. Patterson said Appelbaum's behavior has been "something of an open secret for a while."

At this point on Friday, Tor made a statement to Mic that the "circumstances surrounding Jake's departure are a personnel matter." 

It was shortly after on Friday that a website appeared for the purpose of collecting and publishing about a half dozen anonymous stories of sexual misconduct by Appelbaum — these stories have not been substantiated by Mic, and representatives of the site have not identified the members of what the site calls a "collective of people who have been harassed, plagiarized, humiliated and abused — sexually, emotionally and physically — by Jacob Appelbaum."

It was after this, and complaints on social media that the Tor Project had not been more direct about the allegations, that Tor released its statement on Saturday. It advised people to come forward with their stories, and to contact law enforcement.

"We recognize that many people in the information security and internet freedom communities don't necessarily trust law enforcement," the statement said. "We encourage those people to seek advice from people they trust, and to do what they believe is best for them."

Appelbaum hasn't, as far as Mic could determine, faced public accusations of sexual assault in the past. In 2012, Appelbaum had this to say about sexual assault accusations against WikiLeaks' Julian Assange:

"To the people calling me a rape apologist because I support the accused," he tweeted, "Don't you guys get it? I'm not apologizing, accusation isn't guilt."

Mic has reached out to a number of people within the Tor community, as well as Jacob Appelbaum, and will update this story as we receive more information.

If you have any information about allegations against Jacob Appelbaum, please get in touch with the reporter of this story at jack@mic.com, or reach out through encrypted communications channels.

June 4, 2016, 6:56 p.m. Eastern: This story has been updated.