During the 20th Century many journalists sought to make careers by traveling to distant and dangerous locations to interview rebel leaders, tyrants and criminals for stories that would titillate their readers. In the 21st century this has continued, though the development of digital technology and communications has brought changes: media can now operate with much greater flexibility, transmitting footage and text from even the most hostile environments; and the role of the citizen has become much more important to media creation.
Changes in technology and communications have also had their effect on society (Australian, Western and Global) and in the 21st century the list of exciting and alluring interview targets has been expanded to include hackers, cyber criminals and hacktivists.
When mainstream journalists write of hackers and hacktivists the characters they create often fall into one of two stereotypes: the nervous, fidgety and suspicious kind who, if they can be coaxed out for a meet, are laconic and somewhat coy; and the young, cocky and flamboyant types who have prospered from their efforts (illegal and legal). Maybe, if you’re lucky, they interview the hacker brought back to earth by the law or their colleagues.
Jacob Appelbaum fits none of these categories: he is a very normal person. When he spoke at Occupy Melbourne it was almost as though he had materialised out of thin air; wearing his characteristic shirt, emblazoned with the slogan “Be the trouble you want to see in the world…”, and softly spoken his positive and inviting rhetoric drew in a crowd that swelled from a dozen or so people to over eighty near the end.
Appelbaum covered a range of topics: the state and wrongness of American surveillance of civilians and activists; the collaboration of Facebook with law enforcement agencies; the stockpiling and exploitation of personal data by intelligence agencies and online businesses alike; the need for Australia to recognise that Julian Assange is an Australian and that our government has done all but nothing to help him; and the unconfirmed admission by someone in the Australian telecommunications industry that the Australian government had established interception and monitoring rooms within telecommunications facilities, much like the NSA in the United States.
Appelbaum also spoke about Tor (the Onion router) and its applications for online communications by activists. He was quick to assure us that Tor was not 100 per cent safe and that doesn’t provide anything more than anonymity (which can be undone with sufficient resources and patience) but offered tips on how to minimise the possibility of identification while using Tor.
Possibly most importantly, and definitely most controversially (Hi NOSIC!), Appelbaum also called on Occupy Melbourne and other activist groups to actively work to expose Government spying on citizens, to infiltrate spying organisations to learn from them and to create change and to use the tactics being employed against activists against those doing the spying.
Appelbaum’s visit to Australia has been assisted in no small way by Senator Scott Ludlam who wrote a letter of recommendation to ensure Appelbaum’s entry into the country and who accompanied Appelbaum as a speaker at “War on the Internet” (click for videos of the event), a speaker and panel session hosted by the Melbourne Trades Hall on Internet security and surveillance. We thank them both for coming down to Occupy Melbourne.