Jacob_Appelbaum1.jpg
UPDATE: Jacob Appelbaum says "there's nothing mysterious going on." Details about Appelbaum's work at UW after the jump.

You won't find Jacob Appelbaum , the

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Jacob Appelbaum, WikiLeaks Enabler and New University of Washington Employee, Is Working on . . . Who Knows?

Jacob_Appelbaum1.jpg
UPDATE: Jacob Appelbaum says "there's nothing mysterious going on." Details about Appelbaum's work at UW after the jump.

You won't find Jacob Appelbaum, the University of Washington's connection to WikiLeaks, listed in the school's directory. Even an assistant in the computer science and engineering department, where the 27-year-old Appelbaum started working half-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, as you might expect, that's not easy information to get.

Appelbaum, featured in a New York Times story this past Sunday, is 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 sometimes spokesperson for WikiLeaks and a subject of FBI scrutiny. Agents questioned him for hours this summer upon his return from a trip to Europe.

Appelbaum is continuing 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 replies initially when asked about 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 the secrecy isn't entirely unusual. Appelbaum isn't in the university directory merely because he's too new, according to Lazowska. And he 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.

Nevertheless, he says the Kohno lab is particularly close-mouthed because of the sensitive work it does.

"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.

"Similarly for work on the security of electronic voting machines, another area in which Yoshi 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 counter-measures.'"

Of course, governments across the globe would undoubtedly be thrilled if Appelbaum's research on the Kohno team allowed them to figure out how to deploy countermeasures against hacking into state secrets. Given his staunch support for WikiLeaks (see Appelbaum's twitter feed), however, that seems unlikely.

UPDATE: Contacting Seattle Weekly today, Appelbaum says he didn't get in touch yesterday because it was the anniversary of his father's death. Eager to put to rest any notion that he's engaged in WikiLeaks work at UW, Appelbaum says that he is willing to talk about his university research. The main thing he's been working on so far is Tor, he says.

Specifically, he's developing a system that he hopes will help stop censorship of people who use Tor. Currently, he explains, governments or corporations can block Tor relays because they know the ISP addresses linked to the network.

But what if there were 10,000 such addresses? To answer that question, Appelbaum and his colleagues have designed a prototype of a home router that has Tor installed. The idea is that so many people would have these routers at home that nobody could track them all.

And it wouldn't matter, he says, whether owners of such a router actually used Tor or not. Either way, they would be contributing to the anonymity of, say, the human rights activist in China who wants to get information out.

 
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