Jacob Appelbaum's Boss Isn't Telling

The WikiLeaks insider's new UW gig is a secret.

You won't find Jacob Appelbaum, the University of Washington's connection to WikiLeaks, listed in the school's directory. Even an assistant in UW's computer science and engineering department, where the 27-year-old Appelbaum started working part-time last week, says she doesn't have access to his e-mail address, which is hidden when she sends him an online message. As for what exactly he does, that's not easy information to get either.Appelbaum, featured in a New York Times story this past Sunday, moonlights as a developer for Tor Hidden Services, a secretive, labyrinth-like system that WikiLeaks relies upon to keep its sources anonymous. A host of other organizations and individuals—including the military—also use Tor, which is run by a Massachusetts-based nonprofit. Appelbaum has become an evangelist for Tor, a sometime spokesperson for Wiki-Leaks, and a subject of FBI scrutiny. (Agents questioned him for hours this summer upon his return from a trip to Europe.)Appelbaum continues to work on Tor at the UW, according to his boss, Yoshi Kohno, who runs a lab devoted to computer security and privacy. "His other work for the lab is currently embargoed, so I'm afraid I can't go into too much detail," Kohno says of his new employee. Questioned further about who has embargoed the work of a public university employee, he says he misspoke. "I meant: Jake's work is much too early to talk about, and in a brand-new direction."Ed Lazowska, chair of the computer science department, says that such secrecy isn't entirely unusual. Appelbaum isn't in the university directory merely because he's too new, according to Lazowska, who adds that it's not uncommon for researchers to keep quiet about their research before publication, in part so that the journals that publish their findings can make a big splash. The Kohno lab is particularly closed-mouthed because of the sensitive work it does, Lazowska notes."Yoshi did some work last year exploring the vulnerability of modern automobiles to hacking," Lazowska says. These days, cars have a myriad of computers that could be illicitly accessed, and the research was intended to figure out how to prevent such hacking. Before releasing his findings, Lazowska says there was a lot of "behind-the-scenes" back-and-forth with car manufacturers and regulatory agencies.The same secrecy also applies to "work on the security of electronic voting machines, another area in which Kohno has been involved," Lazowska says. "In this case, the manufacturers were being deceptive concerning the security of their systems–they were very hard to deal with. And you don't want to describe 'how to hack a voting machine' until everyone is ready to deploy countermeasures.'"Of course, governments across the globe would surely be thrilled if Appelbaum's research on the Kohno team allowed them to figure out how to deploy countermeasures against hacking into state secrets. Update: Appelbaum responds, letting Seattle Weekly know the nature of his UW project and explaining his initial failure to comment.

 
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