Enemies of the state
The digital-rights activists Jacob Appelbaum and Laura Poitras – key players in the Edward Snowden affair – have moved to Berlin to escape harassment by US security services and to spread their message about the dangers of our surveillance society
Among friends: Edward Snowden supporters in Berlin. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty
Among friends: Jacob Appelbaum in Berlin. Photograph: Adam Berry/Getty
Among friends: Laura Poitras in Berlin. Photograph: Adam Berry/Getty
Top secret: part of an internal NSA briefing
In the entrance hall to Berlin’s curvy House of World Cultures, the words of the US Founding Father Benjamin Franklin are chiselled in stone: “God grant that not only the love of liberty but a thorough knowledge of the rights of man may pervade all the nations of the earth so that a philosopher may set his foot anywhere on its surface and say ‘this is my country.’ ”
It is a poignant thought as Jacob Appelbaum and Laura Poitras appear with their laptops. They are two of the most prominent digital-rights activists in the circle around the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Snowden went into hiding last June after revealing the NSA’s worldwide surveillance network – and his identity – to Poitras, a documentary maker, in Hong Kong. While Snowden now faces an uncertain future as an asylum seeker in Russia, Poitras and Appelbaum, a computer-security specialist, are part of a circle of digital- rights exiles with links to Snowden who have made Berlin their home. Germany is their country now.
From here they continue to publish information from the Snowden data cache in Der Spiegel magazine. Their thoughts are turning to the next stage in their campaign: how to move people beyond shock and outrage at the NSA’s actions to realising the potential consequences for privacy and democracy.
Considering the pressures both are under, they are remarkably laid back as they discuss their ride on the NSA roller coaster with a Berlin audience. “The mind is a wonderful thing, and it protects you from things,” says Poitras, a 52-year-old with dark curly hair and watchful eyes. “The people I film are always taking greater risks.”
In the decade before Snowden made contact, Poitras devoted herself to documenting the US reaction the 9/11 attacks. Films about another NSA whistleblower, William Binney, and the fate of people held indefinitely in Guantánamo Bay put her on US government watch lists. The resulting harassment by border agents on trips into and out of the US prompted her to resettle from New York to Berlin.
Jacob Appelbaum had similar experiences. The bespectacled 30-year-old is involved in the Tor project, a network to provide online anonymity for internet users, and has links to both Snowden and Julian Assange, of Wikileaks.
An “atheist, bisexual Jew”, Appelbaum – Jake to his friends – speaks in sentences that are as carefully considered as they are enunciated. Anger bubbles beneath his words. He has been followed at airports, had his luggage searched and had his property confiscated. Since moving to Berlin, he says, he has been followed and had unknown visitors to his apartment. Despite all this he feels safer in the German capital than he did in the US.
From across the Atlantic, Poitras and Appelbaum are philosophical about becoming enemies of the state they once called home. Poitras says she has become better at using digital encryption to safeguard her working materials, particularly a full set of NSA documentation that Snowden gave her.
Appelbaum now makes sure, on his travels, that his suitcase contains a surprise for prying eyes: canned snakes or even a greased dildo. “The greased dildo is an old favourite,” he says. “With humour, I change the frame of reference and show them that I don’t believe they are all-powerful.”
Despite their passion for their current path in life, both appear to have been knocked on to it by chance. September 11th was a turning point for both. Days before the attacks on New York and Washington, Appelbaum says, he went to a recruitment centre to join the military, so it would pay for his third-level education.
“I was about to become a victim of the poverty draft, then, a few days later, September 11th happened and . . . I realised what a f***ing bad idea it would be to become part of the military-industrial complex,” he says.
A second turning point – crucial in his decision to leave the US – came a decade later, when US military located and killed Osama bin Laden, in May 2011. He remembers his shock at the way the emotional public response he remembered to the September 11th attacks had, after 10 years, given way to something harder.
Poitras’s films document that shift. The shocked faces she filmed at Ground Zero in October 2001, an outward sign of a nation’s impotence, soon gave way to documentaries of the harsh consequences of the US “war on terror”: military action, legalised torture, secret prisons and large-scale surveillance.
Appelbaum learned first-hand the difference a decade had made when he argued in 2011 that bin Laden should have been put on trial. “People spat in my face for daring to believe that. We gave [Adolf] Eichmann a trial, and that guy is a million times worse and more accomplished, if you can call it that,” he says. “We have a lot of closure on Eichmann because of Hannah Arendt’s writing, and we will never have that with Osama bin Laden.”
The dehumanisation of bin Laden, he adds, is just one sign of worrying slide into two-tier thinking on human rights in the US. Another, he says, is how the stateside NSA surveillance debate distinguishes between the rights of US citizens and those of the rest of the world.
“That is a fundamentally fascist ideology which is not going to be put down easily, because it takes a lot of soul-searching, and America doesn’t have a framework for that. This is nothing to with the government or the press but the shitty little fascist inside of every person that many Americans refuse to suppress.”
When they think of their homeland, Poitras and Appelbaum veer from bleak predictions to black humour. Appelbaum is darker in his outlook. In recent months he has embraced the Russian maxim that “hope dies last, but it still dies.”
Poitras is more hopeful that the Snowden leaks she is steering will drive change – even, eventually, in the US. “Sometimes,” she says, “it feels like a nightmare from which you want to wake up, but Germany is a country with a nightmarish past that went somewhere else with it.”
For the quarter of a century since the fall of the wall Berlin has been a capital in search of a meaning, a play in search of an author. Now, thanks to its new digital exiles and the Snowden surveillance leaks, the German capital may finally have found its purpose: as a base in the digital battle of the 21st century.
“My last name is very Jewish, and yet I’m in Berlin as a free man, not marked in any way by the German government. That was unthinkable 75 years ago. I don’t know how it came to be, but I know it can be done.”
Changing digital habits: 'Every time you encrypt you're winning'
For Appelbaum the past year has changed once again how he views the world around him. Jokingly describing himself as “preparanoid”, he says the surveillance fantasies once limited to Philip K Dick novels have, thanks to Edward Snowden’s leaks, been proved very real.
The initial revelations covered the vast scope of US National Security Agency data dragnets, from tapping telecoms cables and mobile phones to embassies. Then came revelations about the NSA systems to store, sort and evaluate the masses of data.
More recent exposés cover a catalogue of NSA technical spying devices like “Cottonmouth”, where hidden chips make otherwise regular USB cables act as wireless radio transmitters of data in and out of computers.
The NSA’s “Howlermonkey” technology does the same via a computer’s network connection, while the “Ragemaster” chip intercepts a computer’s video signals, to reveal what you are seeing on your monitor.
For Appelbaum and other digital hackers, the NSA programmes Snowden revealed have triggered ambiguity towards the digital world they once embraced. “When the physical world and the internet come together, there are connection points where everyday objects are weaponised and potentially used against us,” he says.
Computers and mobile phones are, in one set of hands, tools of liberation and, in another, tools of surveillance. The challenge now, he adds, is helping the wider population change their ways of seeing the digital world that surrounds them and to modify their behaviour accordingly. In particular, he hopes more people learn to encrypt their communication beyond the reach of the digital-data dragnet.
“There is a war on your privacy, and every time you encrypt you’re winning,” he says. Although the scale of NSA eavesdropping is breathtaking, he says, the fact that one person could expose it all creates hope – and, he thinks, creates a case for Snowden to be granted asylum to join his digital disciples in Germany.