Hacker Jacob Appelbaum's new tool in the fight for digital freedom? Photography

Privacy activist Jacob Appelbaum’s new art exhibit depicts controversial figures in the privacy debate how he’d like you to see them.

Jacob Appelbaum is an American hacker, a privacy activist and an artist with a new show, his first solo photography exhibition in his chosen city of Berlin. Had things gone differently, he could even have been a Communications Security Establishment (CSE) agent.

According to Appelbaum, he was invited to talk to students about privacy online a few years ago in, if he remembers correctly, Ottawa. It's something he often does as a member of the Tor project, a free software network providing online anonymity.

He later found out it was a military college, and that the audience at the bar where the talk took place wasn't just students but also various government agents.

"There was a guy in the audience who came up to me afterwards and said, Why don't you come work for us?"

Appelbaum says people would be surprised by how many offers he's received from various federal agencies.

I consciously wanted to display a proud person.- Jacob Appelbaum on his approach to photographing Julian Assange.

Instead, the 32-year-old built an international reputation as a privacy advocate and security expert, a winner of the respected Henri Nannen prize for journalism for helping reveal surveillance by the U.S.' National Security Agency (NSA) in Germany, and an ally of both Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.

"I kind of regret it. You know? If I can go back in time I think it would have been a really good thing to do that, if only because then we would have had another Edward Snowden, this time from Canada. Hindsight is always 20/20," he says from the Nome Gallery in Berlin.

An exhibit of Appelbaum's work on the topic of surveillance opens this week (one day shy of September 11) in the city he now calls home. Appelbaum describes himself as "living in exile in Germany" because he says he's faced repeated harassment by the U.S. government.

Appelbaum's 'SAMIZDATA: Evidence of Conspiracy' is a series of works that includes one of several panda bears stuffed with Snowden's shredded documents, a collaboration with Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei.

But the central item of the exhibit is a collection of portraits Appelbaum took over the years of his colleagues and friends, like Ai Weiwei, Citizenfour documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

That they were taken using infrared film once used for aerial surveillance seems quite the meta statement, but Appelbaum says it's a happy accident. He was introduced to the film about a decade ago by Toronto photographer Kate Young.

One of the goals of the exhibit is to illustrate what Appelbaum calls "a kind of emergent network" that has sprung up, an informal team of anti-surveillance dissidents.

American security expert and privacy activist Jacob Appelbaum. (Kate Young)

But it's also to show how he views these similarly polarizing, controversial figures.

"You're not going to see Laura lying on her couch normally," he says.

And with the Assange photo, taken in 2012, "I consciously wanted to display a proud person when we were still on the edge of understanding how far this was going to go."

For Appelbaum, the idea of anonymity online isn't something to fear.

"Anonymity online is to be at liberty," he says, adding that the internet is a place where one should be able to freely associate and form your own thoughts and opinions.

"There will always be bad actors, but sometimes those bad actors wear good cop badges."

Jacob Appelbaum. SAMIZDATA: Evidence of Conspiracy, presented in collaboration with SAMIZDATA: Tactics and Strategies for Resistance by Disruption Network Lab, curated by Tatiana Bazzichelli. NOME Gallery, 31 Dolziger St., Berlin. Fri., Sept. 11 to Sat., Oct. 31. Tue-Sat, 3pm-7pm. Free.

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