The year 2016 is only a couple of hours old when the orgy in Jacob Appelbaum’s apartment in a pre-World War II building in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg district really gets going.
Somebody has unfolded the sofa in the living room. Two couples are having sex at the same time in the room. Some guests had already taken synthetic party drug MDMA, which induces a state of euphoria and increases the need for emotional warmth, at another party. A third couple is going at it in the bedroom. Later, a crime allegedly took place in Mr. Appelbaum’s bed or on the fold-out sofa.
A couple of people in the living room are prone on the floor, all of them fully dressed. They had turned up the music so the moaning and groaning of the others doesn’t bother them as much. A young journalist had made herself comfortable on a man’s lap, and he is massaging her back. Sitting across from them is a young American woman. She had gotten to know the others just a couple of days before, but she appears to be uncomfortable at this party. She doesn’t talk much but listens in a friendly manner to what is being said.
The host, Jake Appelbaum, is doing much of the talking at the New Year’s Eve party. Mr. Appelbaum is a 33-year-old American, and he’s a specialist in computer security and the equivalent of a rock star in the worldwide community of hackers. His name is mentioned in the same breath as the elite of digital dissidents such as Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. For many people, such men are savior-like figures.
Mr. Appelbaum’s party guests number about 20 and are programmers, hackers and activists from all around the world. They are united by one mission: use encryption technologies to fight against what they see as the hated surveillance state. Mr. Appelbaum has been a guru in this Berlin community since he fled the United States in 2013. He felt he was being persecuted by the intelligence agencies.
On this night, he speaks of a trip to Iraq and also his tattoo idea: he wants the images of mathematical formulas tattooed on his body. He shows his guests a sculpture. It’s a prize for investigative journalism that he won two years ago.
He had uncovered for the German magazine Der Spiegel how the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) was monitoring the German chancellor’s mobile phone. The journalism prize is named after German journalist Henri Nannen, whose Nazi past incenses Mr. Appelbaum.
He asks those guests gathered around him whether he should smear the sculpture with blood, perhaps the blood of a Jewish activist or perhaps his own blood. Or with menstruation blood, says the female journalist, but she isn’t having her period right now. This is good for other things, Mr. Appelbaum says. A little while later, he disappears with her into the bedroom. Already there in bed is the taciturn young American woman. The three had sex together.
Mr. Appelbaum’s social downfall is sealed this evening and two others he spends with the American. Later, she will make serious allegations against him.
Since then, Mr. Appelbaum has been only one main thing in the public’s eye: a sex offender.
“At no point,” he said in an interview with Die Zeit, “did I have sex with someone who was unconscious; nor did I have sex with someone who was in anyway too intoxicated to consent.””
Mr. Appelbaum had been involved in the Tor Project, which provides online anonymity, the most powerful weapon in the fight against secret services and government surveillance. But the digital privacy group announced in early June that Mr. Appelbaum had stepped down. Until then, he had been an important developer for Tor, and the figurehead of software that not only enables what is termed the Darknet. People worldwide put their trust in Tor technology when information must remain secret, when they fear for their lives, or when they aim to circumvent censorship. The Tor network enables protective anonymity to a wide variety of people, from Iranian dissidents to whistleblowers such as former NSA contract employee Mr. Snowden. On the internet, Tor users can communicate incognito.
Shortly after the Tor Project’s announcement in June, a new website popped up: jacobappelbaum.net. The site was set up by people who see themselves as Mr. Appelbaum’s victims. Visitors to the website see photos of Mr. Appelbaum, one of him posing in a colorful suit as if he were the Joker in a Batman film, or other photos of him with microphone in hand giving lectures to fans. “Hey there! We’re a collective of people,” write the anonymous persons responsible for the website, “who have been harassed, plagiarized, humiliated, and abused — sexually, emotionally, and physically — by Jacob Appelbaum.” Above almost every photo of Mr. Appelbaum on the website is an alleged victim’s pseudonym.
Among others, there is an account by a woman who calls herself “Forest.” She tells of how she found herself forced to repulse his insistent advances. When she has assumed that everything had been cleared up in a friendly manner between them, she spent the night in Mr. Appelbaum’s apartment and slept next to him in bed.
Forest writes that apparently at some point she woke up to find that Mr. Appelbaum had unzipped her pants and stuck his finger in her underwear. She wrote that she tried to wake him, but he then rolled over. When the woman angrily confronted Mr. Appelbaum about it later, she claimed he made the terse excuse that he had dreamed that his fiancée was lying next to him.
Another woman who goes by the name “River” also relates an account on the website – and behind the pseudonym is the woman who had sex with the female journalist and Mr. Appelbaum at the New Year’s Eve gathering. The most severe accusation is made by River:
Mr. Appelbaum supposedly pressured her into sleeping with him. His friends reportedly watched the assault. She says she made it clear that she didn’t want to. On Mr. Appelbaum’s instigation, one of his friends touched her, she claimed. The woman writes that she repeatedly said she didn’t want that. At some point, River writes, she blacked out, although she doesn’t clearly say whether it was due to alcohol or drugs. When she regained consciousness, she claimed that she discovered that Mr. Appelbaum was having sexual intercourse with her as the friends watched. River writes: “I didn’t know until very recently that nonconsensual sex, by a friend, is rape.”
Is Mr. Appelbaum a sex criminal? The legal term for what he allegedly did with the person calling herself River is “sexual abuse of people incapable of resistance.” That crime is punished the same way as rape. In Germany, according to section 179 of the German Criminal code, the punishment is imprisonment for between two and fifteen years. In addition, a foreigner could lose his residency permit with a prison sentence exceeding three years. Mr. Appelbaum vehemently denies River’s accusations.
In order to understand what really might have happened, it’s important to consider the details, and to match the names the actors gave themselves with their real names. It’s important not just to reconstruct the three days that followed New Year’s Eve when River was at home with Appelbaum. It also matters to recount what happened on the days running up to that. As well as the events that were triggered by Appelbaum‘s resignation.
Not all of the accounts on the collective’s website are of substantial legal significance.
A woman calling herself “Sam” relates the following: She had a minor romantic interest in Mr. Appelbaum and visited him once at home. She writes that he was lying naked in the bathtub and “kind of pulled” her into the tub. He then started to wash her after she had “repeatedly told him no.” Other people report on the website that Mr. Appelbaum kissed them on the mouth with no invitation. Once he supposedly gave a friend a “really aggressive shoulder massage with no invitation.” The website lists many minor transgressions, including Mr. Appelbaum’s alleged verbal crudeness and stupid dirty jokes, but they also happen to harbor a suggestion of a serious crime.
There has been a resounding impact: After Mr. Appelbaum left the Tor Project, other organizations also declared him persona non grata. The renowned Freedom of the Press Foundation abandoned him, the hacker group Cult of the Dead Cow kicked him out, and the hacker space Noisebridge, which he helped found in San Francisco, imposed a ban on him. Unknown persons spray-painted “A rapist lives here” in both English and German on the walls of the apartment building where he lives, with an arrow pointing to what appeared to be the windows of his apartment.
But other people see Mr. Appelbaum as the real victim. The victim of vindictive radical feminists who, in a frenzy of political correctness, blow up every minor faux pas into a crime and who – disregarding assumptions of innocence – operate a website to shame and pillory him.
Amazingly enough, neither side shows much interested in this: Which of the accusations on the website can be proved? Which details are true and which are not? Is Mr. Appelbaum in fact a rapist? Was River really unconscious?
In a way, the Appelbaum case resembles the Tor Project.
“Tor” is derived from an acronym for the original software project’s name: The Onion Router. The name was meant to describe how the technology uses a number of onion-like layers around the data stream, each layer individually and differently encrypted. So that in the end, no one knows who is sending the data and who is receiving it, not even the NSA.
And just like the layers of this encryption onion skins are difficult to separate from one another, so too the facets of the case involving Mr. Appelbaum, as it appears after lengthy research.
For behind the accusations is not one story but many at the same time. The first is about a campaign by a group of activists against their former heroes.
The other stories involve a tight-knit conspiratorial community in which you can meet people who live differently, more to the extreme, perhaps with more sophistication. You can learn about group sex and polyamorous, transgender and queer hackers. Of people who not only hate the surveillance state but every system of order. Of libertarian activists and people who have tried every form of sexual intimacy.
The alleged freedom of modern, uninhibited, emancipated, amorous liaisons comes hand-in-hand with betrayal, melancholy, power games and astonishingly emotional callousness.
Let’s start with what happened on December 26, the evening before the Chaos Communication Congress in Hamburg. The congress, as everybody calls it, is the world’s most important meeting of the hacker community. This is where hackers come, not only listen to lectures, but also celebrate the end of the year with alcohol, drugs and sex, among other things.
On the evening before the congress, Mr. Appelbaum was sitting with others in the lobby of the Radisson Hotel, located directly next to the congress site. Mr. Appelbaum was supposedly stone-drunk. He ordered 10 or 12 or maybe more Aperol Spritzes in the restaurant and at the bar.
In the hotel lobby, two scenes took place. Collectively, they show how unreliable people can be in perceiving and recounting what Mr. Appelbaum did. And they also show that he is an impulsive person, a man driven, vulgar, arrogant, condescending and encroaching.
People in the movement describe him as someone who likes to experiment with sex. As one who usually gets what he wants. “I’ve seen how he pays no attention to the feelings of others,” said one person who knows him well, “and how he is excessively tenacious in getting consent from others to do something that they don’t want to do.” But, he added, Mr. Appelbaum asks for permission.
“I’ve also seen him be inconsiderate of other people’s feelings, or be overly persistent about asking for permission to do things other people didn’t want to do,” the source said. “But in my experience he’s asking permission because he respects those boundaries.”
Others report he behaved respectfully toward them. Perhaps the legal clarity with which sexual matters are regulated in the community quickly turns the wish for express consent into rudeness when someone like Mr. Appelbaum is insistently talking others into something. And perhaps it’s Mr. Appelbaum’s ambiguous reputation, in combination with all manner of failings, that make it easy for many people to believe the accusations of rape when they emerged in June.
One of the many women that Mr. Appelbaum had sex with in varying constellations was a young Russian activist who traveled to Hamburg for the congress. The two had a drink together in the lobby. At some point, the two stood outside of the bathrooms. Mr. Appelbaum kissed the woman so hard that her lip bled.
In the lobby, another of Mr. Appelbaum’s girlfriends, a student from Germany, was waiting at the bar. She wasn’t feeling so well. She sat on Mr. Appelbaum’s lap. The two kissed and fondled each other. At some point, the student noticed she had lost her handbag and looked anxiously around the lobby. When she said goodbye to Mr. Appelbaum later, she pushed him away in fun. A man approached and asked whether Jacob was harassing me.
No, said the student. Nevertheless, the man shoves his way between her and Mr. Appelbaum, and the man tried to head him off.
Six months later, Mr. Appelbaum is considered a rapist by some. Three eyewitnesses who were in the lobby gave interviews to Gizmodo, the U.S.-based techblog. Among the three was the man who distracted Mr. Appelbaum. The three eyewitnesses recounted that Jake has his hands all over this girl, and she is very obviously not very happy. You know, she’s looking for her bag, they’re having a conversation and she’s looking for her bag she can’t find her bag and she appears to be really quite distressed and Appelbaum forcibly attempts to try and kiss her, grabs her arm and her backside and makes a move for her breasts.”
The student set the record straight in a statement. “Reading this highly distorted version of my experience … I can’t help but wonder,” she wrote.
The organizers of the jacobappelbaum.net website committed the same mistake. An earlier version included the case of “Alice.” The text was posted only for a short time. Although the time and location had been changed, her story fits precisely with the events at the congress. Mr. Appelbaum kissed Alice so violently that her lips bled.
But when Mr. Appelbaum’s actual Russian girlfriend discovered the text on the web, she was shocked. She demanded those responsible for the website to remove it from the internet immediately. She says she doesn’t want to be used by a campaign that she rejects. “I am not a victim of Jake,” she told Die Zeit. She says she told a friend about the intense kiss in confidence. This story was not merely used on the website without her permission – she says the story was also “heavily manipulated.”
Barely 14 days after the website went live, two women posted blog entries and admitted to being the people identified as Sam and Forest.
A Tor programmer with the pseudonym Isis Agora Lovecruft admitted to being Forest (the one into whose underwear Mr. Appelbaum supposedly slipped his finger) and identified herself as a young American living in Berlin. Ms. Lovecruft is not a computer scientist. She studied physics and literature, and her majors were High-Energy Physics and Feminist Critical Theory.
Sam is also an American whose real name is Alison Macrina, head of a project that aims to make libraries accessible with Tor. (She is the woman in the bathtub episode.)
There’s a lot that suggests it was these two who set up the webpage containing the accusations. Ms. Lovecruft declares in her blog that she has been collecting the testimonies of Appelbaum victims for half a year. She is also the girlfriend that the Russian activist confided in about her bloody lip.
It’s possible that what Ms. Lovecruft and Ms. Macrina described under the Forest and Sam pseudonyms happened that way.
Friends of Mr. Appelbaum, however, accuse the two of having left out key details. Such as Sam ending her account with her reportedly leaping out of the bathtub and crying. In reality, apparently, the evening ended otherwise. After talking things over for a long time, she supposedly had consensual sex with Mr. Appelbaum.
Ms. Macrina reacted angrily when asked about it. It’s “shameful and prurient” to even be asked about that at all, she said. “Finally, as a general principle, it is not okay to hold up other sexual encounters to assault victims as a way of suggesting that their assault is invalid.”
Since the talk was no longer just about anonymous accusations, the Chaos Computer Club, which carries a lot of weight in the international hacker community, also distanced itself from Mr. Appelbaum after a fierce internal squabble. “Yes, of course this means Jacob Appelbaum @ioerror is not welcome,” CCC said in a Twitter message June 17.
With that, all the significant institutions have ousted him – aside from a very few exceptions like WikiLeaks, with which he has occasionally worked. Its most prominent representative, Mr. Assange, is stuck in the Ecuadorian embassy in London as he seeks refuge from rape allegations. When asked about Mr. Appelbaum, the people at WikiLeaks replied from London: “No complaint has been lodged against Mr. Appelbaum within WikiLeaks. On the accusations appearing on the internet, we asked our female staff, lawyers and other women we are closely working with whether they had any experience of sexual violence in relation to Mr. Appelbaum or wished to make a complaint. They did not.”
Meanwhile, a major shuffling of employees is taking place at the Tor Project. The whole supervisory board was to be replaced July 13. The network also is losing Tor veteran Lucky Green, a longtime supporter who no longer wants to be part of the way Mr. Appelbaum is being treated. The expert was responsible for the so-called Bridge Authority, a technical tool with which people in countries like China are able to gain access to Tor despite internet censorship. Tor is now building up a new Bridge Authority. The person responsible for the project is Ms. Lovecruft, alias Forest.
Ms. Macrina, alias Sam, was assigned the leadership of the Community Teams after the accusations had become known at Tor. She had also been on the Community Council since the end of 2015. Both committees are also responsible for dealing with sexual harassment among staff members. Ms. Macrina is said to have been deeply involved in the internal investigation against Mr. Appelbaum. Ms. Macrina has suddenly been listed on the Tor website as one of the Tor Project’s core people. In March, Mr. Appelbaum’s name was still listed in that position.
So what the person identified as River had wished for in her allegation on the anti-Appelbaum website has come true: “I am grateful to the people who have fought to do the right thing once they learned of Jacob’s actions. I have seen how many people in this community are incredibly noble and compassionate. (….) It is these people, not people like Jacob, that should be the leaders of our community.”
Ms. Macrina added that she has “never held any position that Jake held, nor have I taken over any of his responsibilities.” She says the fact that she now holds more responsibility at Tor is a result of her “demonstrated commitment to the organization over time.” In no way does she correlate that to events having to do with Mr. Appelbaum.
Mr. Appelbaum was always a controversial figure within the Tor Project. He hardly programmed and was more responsible for the outward image – he stood on stages, got the applause. Others were quietly doing the work, inside sources say. Mr. Appelbaum was at times being given an annual salary at Tor of close to $100,000, while a freelance programmer like Ms. Lovecruft earned only a fraction of that.
Moreover, a serious conflict has been smoldering for months over Tor’s political alignment. To what extent are financial backers like the U.S. State Department acceptable? Mr. Appelbaum had always fought against being too close to the government, against too much professionalism. He wanted to stay a radical critic.
All of that might have prepared the ground for the hate, but it doesn’t answer the question about whether Mr. Appelbaum is a rapist or has otherwise committed a punishable offence. Following an internal investigation, the Tor Project issued a news release July 27: Mr. Appelbaum has repeatedly shown “unwanted sexually aggressive behavior.” No word about River, no word about whether she was unconscious. Even after repeated requests, Tor continues to make no comment.
On the other hand, what happened does matter to Mr. Appelbaum.
“At no point,” he said in an interview with Die Zeit, “did I have sex with someone who was unconscious; nor did I have sex with someone who was in anyway too intoxicated to consent.”
To this day, no criminal investigator nor public prosecutor is conducting an investigation against him. There are only anonymous allegations on the Internet. Why have the victims not called the authorities? Why haven’t Ms. Lovecruft and Ms. Macrina filed a complaint against the alleged perpetrator? Do they think nothing of our constitutional state and the rule of law?
This system, Ms. Macrina wrote in one of her blog posts, “ignores the violence that the system perpetuates against both accuser and accused.” Ms. Lovecruft describes herself as an “anarchist,” like many in the community. She writes in her blog that she wishes Mr. Appelbaum would go into exile, in Alaska or Siberia. “I don’t want Jake’s money. I don’t want him in jail. I don’t want to deal with the legal system at all. I only want Jake’s abusive behavior to stop.”
Anarchists, who hate the state, take charges of rape into their own hands. And where normally there would be a court case, only rumors now prevail. It is also inexplicable why Mr. Appelbaum, who according to his own account is the victim of false accusations, doesn’t go to the police.
River was new to the scene. She had known Mr. Appelbaum and the others only for a couple of days, from the congress. Didn’t she know what she was getting herself into? Guests say Mr. Appelbaum made it explicitly clear that there would be a “sexy time party” at his place. An eyewitness claims to have seen how River had MDMA in her hands on New Year’s Eve. Mr. Appelbaum was also under the influence of drugs that night. The female journalist who left the apartment on New Year’s morning around 10 to go to the airport assures that River made a comparatively sober impression and was at no time unconscious in the night or in the morning. Everything that happened between the three, she says, happened with mutual consent.
It wasn’t until around 5 in the afternoon of January 1 that the rest of Mr. Appelbaum’s guests, who hadn’t made it home, woke up. River was one of them. Those who encountered her that day remember a very quiet, friendly and balanced person. One person, who was afraid he had given away too many intimate details about his life New Year’s night, says River comforted him. In the early evening, he, along with River, Mr. Appelbaum and couple of friends, drove to the Vabali Spa in Berlin, near the main train station.
Similar to the case of the Russian, River’s story also conflates diverse evenings, situations, and people in the Alice account. Events have flowed in that must have taken place after returning from the spa and on the evening of January 2. River maintains they were all watching a movie and lying on the couch, and while they were, she had supposedly been touched her against her will. On one evening, River and Mr. Appelbaum actually watch the Gaspar Noé film “Love” together with friends; on the other evening the U.S. espionage series “The Americans.” Die Zeit was able to speak with three of the five guests who were present. One remembers that River actually could have said on the couch, “Not in front of everyone.” But it was meant in a playful way and nothing more happened after that. No person there on that evening says they watched Mr. Appelbaum and River having sex. One of those present only remembers that somebody murmured “Can I join in?” when River and Mr. Appelbaum were cuddling naked under a blanket. Tor terminated working with two of those present in July; they were accused of “inappropriate behavior.”
Several of Mr. Appelbaum’s friends say they had asked River themselves whether she was okay, one even waited for an undisturbed moment when Mr. Appelbaum had left the room to do it. Each time she answered yes. Also there seems to have been no drugs consumed, and hardly any alcohol, after the excesses of New Year’s Eve. At most a joint. Not one of the total of eight witnesses present during those three nights and two days in January remember River ever being unconscious. Also, no one says they saw her being forced to have sex against her will. River probably left Mr. Appelbaum’s apartment on the morning of January 3. Shortly afterward, Ms. Macrina, alias Sam, showed up, presumably the visit that resulted in the bathtub incident.
Days later, River posted that she was looking forward to another trip to repeat the fun she had – she meant in Hamburg and Berlin. On January 19, River wrote Mr. Appelbaum an email about cryptography. She closes with “hugs.” At the latest in mid-May, River is in contact with Ms. Lovecruft, one of the presumed creators of the website. River did not wish to comment.
The Internet activists, who are so courageously fighting against surveillance, are now fighting against each other. Some in the anti-Appelbaum camp are no longer showing up for the regular weekly get-together in Berlin. Apartment-sharing communities are falling apart. Some hackers are even not getting involved in romantic relationships within the community anymore out of fear they could be wrongly accused of something. Tor insiders report that projects have bogged down. Mutual trust, a key resource of activists, is destroyed.
“Guaranteed, the champagne corks are popping at the NSA,” said a Tor staff member. “For months, Tor has been preoccupied with itself. Right now we’re destroying each other, even though we’re all fighting for the same thing.”
Maybe something was already destroyed. Many in the community speak of the noble ideals they represent – freedom, equality, consensus. The crypto community is preserving the slogans of the hippies and the 1968 generation, expanded by mathematical formulas and programming languages. But just as once in the leftist communes, an ice-cold desire for power is also flaring up today behind the big words.
When it comes to sex, power and drama, the hacker community resembles a hormone-loaded American college fraternity. Except that here paranoia has long been running rampant. Members sleep with one another and think each other is capable of all manner of evil. There is no end to tales about who has already once accused whom of secretly working for the hated government. Even the most secure encryption can’t save the revolution from eating its own children.
After long talks in a hotel and over encrypted chat programs, Mr. Appelbaum sent his statement. He said he “failed as a leader in the Tor community, failing to create positive structural changes” that could have prevented sexism. He says he made many mistakes and hurt people, and he takes the responsibility for that.
“I have violated people’s expectations of privacy, I have made jokes in poor taste and I have used explicit language at inappropriate times,” he said. But River’s story is “fiction.”
Many others interviewed for this article, both friends and opponents of Mr. Appelbaum, didn’t want to be quoted. Out of fear of reprisals, both sides say.
This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. Sebastian Mondial contributed to this article. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org