This cyber-security activist made me afraid of surveillance culture

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The camouflage hunting camera outside my edit suite always gets a bewildered chuckle from visitors.

But two years ago, it was a deadly serious precaution against the SWAT team that was at any moment likely to raid us for the raw footage of what would become the documentary channel film Nobody Wants To Talk About Jacob Appelbaum — and when they did, at least there’d be a record.

The motion-sensing hunting camera outside the edit suite was a condition to gain access to the film’s protagonist, one of many unprecedented — in my experience — which also included a heavy-duty lock on the edit suite door and a gun safe within to store the edit computer at night.

Throughout making 10 films, I have found myself in a few dicey situations, risking the ire of biker gang members, the odd retired law enforcement officer/agency, or worse perhaps, disco divas.

But nothing had prepared me for the exponential challenge of making a film about Jacob Appelbaum: an internet security expert, outspoken internet freedom advocate, close associate and for a time heir apparent to Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks, which, during Jake’s time with them, CIA director Mike Pompeo characterized as a “non-state hostile intelligence service,” that he vowed to pursue with an al-Qaeda size budget.

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A decade ago when Edward Snowden’s leaks were the biggest news story in the world, Assange was freshly evading arrest in the Ecuadorian embassy. Were these guys heroes or villains? The world was divided. I found myself, by chance, with an entrée into this world and to the lesser-known though no less fascinating Jacob Appelbaum, through a lawyer I’d met making The Skyjacker’s Tale, Margaret Ratner Kunstler, who represents Wikileaks folk.

Even before dipping a toe into his world, I found myself overthinking certain basics of communication — on what platform does one contact such a person, where do you meet, and how?

He quickly took control. After a few cursory emails, which he assured me were being monitored, he had me and Laura, my producer and wife, meet him at an event at the Canadian embassy during the Berlin Film Festival.

When we first spoke, he let me know that he’d noted from across the room, that I had my cell phone in my left pocket and a battery booster in my right. He asked: Did I have any other devices on me?

It was my first sense of life, being observed from another plane, like the casino security in the movies watching the action on the floor from the mirrored ceiling above.

That sensation amplified when we next met for coffee, strolling intermittently to dodge potential surveillance in the café. He’d point out the roof of the US embassy where he’d helped uncover the devices he caught spying on Chancellor Angela Merkel (a story he’d broken for newsmagazine Der Spiegel which helped him win the Nannen Prize, Germany’s equivalent of The Pulitzer).

Beyond revealing the instruments of contemporary surveillance, the conversation was peppered with facts about surveillance past; the role of, say, IBM counting machines during the Holocaust. His words set me uncomfortably adrift on a continuum of surveillance. I was at once both walking down the street having a private conversation, while increasingly aware of how our conversation might be monitored on a meta-level. 

By turns discomfiting and barely believable, I realized if nothing else, I was in the hands of a brilliant, compelling, if not yet quite trustworthy narrator.

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Security expert Jacob Appelbaum believes he’s always being watched: Nobody Wants to Talk About Jacob Appelbaum

Appelbaum gives a personal account of his life under surveillance.

Nor, as he made perfectly clear, did Jacob in any way trust me.

Appelbaum felt under siege by members of his community, the internet freedom/security/hacker/journalist world, for reasons I certainly wanted to explore, even though I understood that these were folks with hacking skills who might take issue with my work. He also felt deeply betrayed by a previous documentary maker which added to his trepidation about the project.

If we were to do this film, there would be conditions:

I and I alone would be allowed to film (handling a camera was never a skill I had put on a resumé); footage shot would be backed up daily onto two encrypted hard drives the passwords of which I would memorize, the original memory cards on which we filmed would be overwritten before my crossing any international borders; footage would never enter the United States.

And once we finally made it to the editing stage, in addition to the hunting camera outside and the gun safe within (to guard the material from possible physical attacks), the suite must be “air-gapped”: the editing computer itself must be bought new for the project, preferably paid for in cash (less susceptible to being bugged in advance), must never go online, nor must any phone (their microphones vulnerable to external control even when off) ever enter the suite.

Memory keys and hard drives entering the suite must never leave again, i.e., ever go back online, creating a data “loop” that could allow the film’s data (or meta-data) to be tracked online. This meant that using, say Google Docs, a typical tool for directors and editors to work with a live script, would be impossible. 

This requirement, painful for one so technically challenged, would lead us to many awkward workarounds. In this case, a piece of “open source” software called Etherpad, a Soviet-style clunky offline version of Google Docs was set up, through the hardwiring of two other offline computers old enough to possess ethernet ports.

And even once, hesitatingly and with endless second-guessing, Appelbaum agreed to do the film, his worry did not abate. 

“You should really think twice about doing this,” he warned me on an encrypted call prior to our first interview. I was in my living room looking out at a flower shuddering in the early spring. “You have a wife and two kids and another on the way and you think you’re being brave but you can’t even begin to understand what it means to be brave since you can’t know what they will do to you ’til it’s too late.”

So was he paranoid or were they really out to get him? Was I brave or foolhardy? These questions have dogged me throughout. Challenging though this journey has been, it’s also been fascinating, and I feel the tale of a movement’s rise and fall which Appelbaum’s story embodies, is an important one. Now that the film’s being released audiences can decide the answers to these questions, and he and I will both learn the true costs of having made this film.

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