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Eyewitnesses Recount Tor Developer Jacob Appelbaum’s Unwanted Sexual Advances

By William Turton on at

Jacob Appelbaum, a prominent advocate for digital privacy and security, last week stepped down from the Tor Project, where he worked as a paid employee, after he was accused of sexual assault. “These types of allegations were not entirely new to everybody at Tor; they were consistent with rumours some of us had been hearing for some time,” Tor Project Executive Director Shari Steele wrote in a blog post about Appelbaum’s resignation. “That said, the most recent allegations are much more serious and concrete than anything we had heard previously.”

Since the anonymous accusations surfaced that accuse Jacob of rape and unwanted sexual advances, some people closely connected to Tor and the security community have started talking about what they saw and experienced. Several of those people declined to speak on the record, and none go so far as to accuse Appelbaum of rape. In interviews with Gizmodo, Emerson Tan and Meridith Patterson, computer security experts involved in the Tor community, and Andrea Shepard, a developer at the Tor Project, described some of Appelbaum’s inappropriate behaviour they say they witnessed—and speculated on how he got away with deeply troubling behaviour for so long.

Gizmodo reached out to Appelbaum for comment on the specific allegations below, and will update if we hear back. In a statement issued earlier this week, Appelbaum said the allegations of sexual advances and rape were “a calculated and targeted attack has been launched to spread vicious and spurious allegations against me.” Appelbaum also said that “the accusations of criminal sexual misconduct against me are entirely false.”

One incident, witnessed by Shepard, Tan, and Patterson, occurred in December at the Chaos Communication Conference in Hamburg, Germany.

“At about 2 or 3 a.m. in the morning I happen to be talking to [Patterson], [Shepard] and Jacob Appelbaum and a group of other people who have come out of the congress hall into the lobby of the Raddison Blu hotel in Hamburg,” Tan told Gizmodo. “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.”

Shepard and Patterson confirmed the account to Gizmodo, saying they watched it happen.

“And the other males who we were with were basically just kind of joking amongst themselves and don’t really seem to see anything wrong with it, which is really quite distressing,” Tan said. “So I watched this for about two to three minutes and then I decide to go and do something and just mount a very very subtle intervention. Which is, I go over, I shake Jake’s hand I tell him what a great job he’s doing with the Tor project and the rest of it and that gives the girl roughly the 30 seconds she needs to find her bag without being in an undistracted fashion. She left, and I found her hiding out in the hotel bar later, after Jake had left. She was pretty composed but obviously upset.”

“Jacob basically had cornered her and we saw him try to force a kiss and Emerson was like fuck this and interrupted him,” Patterson told Gizmodo.

The Chaos Communication Conference is an annual gathering of hackers, privacy advocates, and computer security enthusiasts. Every year, Tor employees and volunteers present the “State Of the Onion,” an annual presentation about the Tor Project and what’s to come in the year ahead. Appelabaum was one of the presenters.

Tan also recalled Appelbaum trying to take upskirt photos of women at the summer edition of the same conference in 2007, in addition to making lewd comments and allegations of threesomes with various members of the privacy community. “It’s like, what the fuck is wrong with you man?” Tan said. “You know, you’re really very very wrong. Several people at that camp told him no photos and the rest of it and he doesn’t care. Several people told him trying to take pictures of breasts and upskirt photos and the rest of it is unacceptable, and he doesn’t care.”

Shepard also described an interaction she had with Applebaum in Berlin in July of 2013. “He once got good drunk at a bar...and discussed how he would ‘use my ass’,” Shepard said. “At the time I mostly thought ‘okay, Jake’s obnoxious when he drinks.’ It looks different when you...realise that’s the low end of something that gets much worse.”

Tan and Shepard say that Appelbaum uses his charisma and fame within the computer security world to prey on vulnerable people. The distrust of authority within the Tor community helps explain why nobody came forward before, Tan said.

“[Appelbaum] is charismatic and has a high public profile,” Shepard added. “People are afraid of confronting him.”