The Tor Project, a digital privacy group, said Wednesday that an internal probe found that Jacob Appelbaum, a former employee who has been held up across the Web as a champion of online privacy, engaged in sexual misconduct.
"Many people inside and outside the Tor Project have reported incidents of being humiliated, intimidated, bullied and frightened by Jacob, and several experienced unwanted sexually aggressive behavior from him," Tor Project Executive Director Shari Steele wrote in a blog post.
The allegations against Appelbaum shook the online privacy community when they surfaced in June because he had become a bit of a celebrity in the online world as the debate intensified over government surveillance and online privacy. The scandal caused a divide in the broader privacy community, with some rushing to his defense and others coming forward with even more troubling stories.
Here's what you need to know about this scandal and its implications for everyday Web users:
What is the Tor Project?
The Tor Project developed technology that is used by journalists, activists and everyday users living under repressive regimes to evade online censorship — as well as by ordinary people who want to keep their location and online browsing habits private. The activist organization is one of the key actors in the privacy world and relies on a small staff and a much larger community of volunteers to develop its tools and keep them running.
Who is Jacob Appelbaum?
Appelbaum was a Tor Project employee and among the most outspoken advocates for the organization. He was also one of the highest-profile online privacy activists in the world. Appelbaum, who lives in Berlin, helped German Magazine Der Spiegel report on National Security Agency leaks and is the only American member of WikiLeaks.
Last year, unsealed court documents showed that the U.S. government spied on his Gmail account as part of its investigation into WikiLeaks, and fought Google's efforts to tell Appelbaum about the surveillance.
So what happened?
In early June, a site launched that featured anonymous testimonials accusing Appelbaum of engaging in inappropriate behavior, including sexual assault. Appelbaum resigned from the Tor Project shortly before the site — JacobAppelbaum.net — went public, but also released a statement denying the allegations and calling the site a "calculated and targeted attack" designed to "spread vicious and spurious allegations" against him.
Eventually two women— Isis Agora Lovecruft and Alison Macrina — stepped forward as authors of two of the posts. Another group of other women, including journalists and activists, posted a statement supporting Appelbaum online at around the same time.
How did the Tor Project react?
The Tor Project hired an outside investigator to look into the allegations. The Project also replaced its entire board of directors after reports surfaced that many of them were aware of the allegations before JacobAppelbaum.net went live.
The organization's seven week investigation essentially confirmed the allegations against Appelbaum — and also "identified two additional people as having engaged in inappropriate conduct" who are no longer involved with the Tor Project, the organization's blog post said.
Appelbaum did not immediately respond to a Post request for comment on the Tor Project's investigation.
In the aftermath of the scandal, the Tor Project created a number of new policies and practices, including an anti-harassment policy and a procedure for submitting complaints, according to the blog post, though the details were not spelled out.
"I believe these new policies and practices will make the Tor Project and the Tor community significantly healthier and stronger," Steele wrote.
Why does this matter for the broader privacy community — and everyday users?
The controversy over Appelbaum shows how many of the gender problems in the tech community at-large may also be at play in the more close-knit online privacy world. And the Tor Project's perceived delay in responding to the allegations against him, which the organization said had long been a subject of rumors, could cool the fervor of volunteers that help develop and maintain Tor Project's software.
The latest steps to address harassment at the Tor Project may keep disenchanted volunteers on board. But if not, Tor's signature products might not get the same level of support they've enjoyed in the past — leaving the tools, and the people who rely on them, more vulnerable.