BERLIN -- On a warm August night, inside a meeting room at the Berlin House of Representatives, American digital privacy activist Jacob Appelbaum pulled a small electronic device from his backpack and issued a challenge to parliament: The member who agreed to run the device, a custom WiFi node, from an office in the building could have it for free.
"If someone from the parliament here really believes in free speech, I'm happy to give this to them," said Appelbaum. The node boosts the signal of a worldwide encryption network called TOR. Short for The Onion Router (think protective layers), TOR software provides a web browser that cloaks IP addresses, granting anonymity to Internet users. The National Security Agency’s controversial PRISM program is thought to be using Internet nodes in foreign countries for espionage. TOR nodes create a blanket that shields Web content -- emails, instant messages, metadata and browser histories, for example -- from the government’s gaze. Without anonymity and privacy, Appelbaum argues, freedom is a fallacy.
“Fundamentally, it’s a very old idea that you should be free to read and free to speak and you should be free to do this without having to identify yourself,” Appelbaum told a packed room of concerned faces -- about 60 in all. Appelbaum, a young man with thick-framed glasses and impeccably clear annunciation, acted as a de facto spokesman for WikiLeaks in 2010 after the group released intelligence cables handed over by Chelsea Manning. With TOR, he explained, “instead of the 20th and 21st century surveillance state, you’re returning to a state where privacy is the norm.”
Appelbaum’s audience, a mix of programmers, off-duty journalists, and concerned citizens, leaned forward in their chairs and listened closely. Promoting encryption is a key part of Appelbaum’s agenda. Only a small substrata of Internet users currently go to such lengths. But the more people encrypt, the greater grow the hurdles to the kind of widespread government surveillance brought to light by former intelligence contract Edward Snowden. And an effective way to recruit new members to the encryption movement is through public events like the one in Berlin -- what have become known as “cryptoparties.”
Many Germans have regarded ubiquitous web giants like Google and Facebook with a high degree of skepticism since well before Snowden’s intelligence leaks revealed that NSA surveillance relies on cooperation from some of the world’s most powerful telecommunications companies. A popular rationale for Germany’s collective apprehension cites the country’s history of extensive spying by both the Nazi secret police and then, in the 1980s, by Stasi state security forces. In July, German magazine Der Spiegel published an interview Appelbaum conducted with Snowden in which the former government contractor claimed that the NSA and German authorities are “in bed together.”
As of August 27, Germany was second only to the U.S. in the number of active TOR users (with nearly 49,000 users to the U.S.’s 97,000). In August, global TOR connections spiked to 150,000 monthly users, up from about 50,000 users in June and July. Publicly, incensed Germans are staging street protests and urging lawmakers to intervene with mechanisms that protect their web activities from the prying eyes of government. Privately, they're turning to hackers for lessons on how to do it themselves.